Thursday, May 17, 2012

If a tree falls...

We are lucky enough to live in a leafy urban neighbourhood where a high canopy of sugar maples casts sun-dappled shade on the gardens and sidewalks.  But the graceful giants are all over a century old, and several more seem to fall every year.  Everyone is becoming increasingly protective of the trees around here, glaring indignantly at the sound of chainsaws.  This spring, WE are to blame for the new gaping hole in the canopy.  We did it advisedly, for safety, but even so we feel sick about it.  Here's what we've lost:

The gorgeous, irreplaceable sugar maple canopy, before
And the gap in the canopy, now
And here's why we did it:
The devastating split in the trunk
The tree, earlier in its life, suffered an injury that created a 20' long split in the trunk.  Although the tree was making a valiant attempt to close in the split, it continued to trap water and rot from the inside out.  Five years ago, we had an arborist assess the tree.  He performed a weighted stress test that revealed quite a bit of movement at the base.  The tree lacked a root flare on two sides of the trunk, another possible indicator of risk.  However, the canopy of the tree was still strong.  He said the tree would continue to weaken, but he couldn't tell us how long we had.  We waited, possibly foolishly, another five years.

Can you blame us?
The canopy looking southwest (it's the middle tree that's doomed)

And looking north and south (the trunk illuminated by the sun)

If we'd kept our heads in the clouds, we might've been okay, but every time we walked by the uneven terrain caused up to watch our step, and when we looked down, we saw this:

Sawdust (in increasingly large chunks), rot, insects, lack of root flare
 And we worried.

Knowing we were gambling with the advent of every major storm, we finally agreed we would take the tree down this year.  We wish it could've happened before the trees leafed out. 

The beginning of the end--the view, forever altered, from my studio

going, going, going, going....

The final pass with the big chainsaw

They felled the final piece of the trunk
The rot was bad, especially half way up, where the tree could've snapped...
The man who felled it said he could tell by the way the chainsaw went through the trunk that the wood was soft and said we could sleep easier now. 

but perhaps not quite as bad as we'd hoped
All of the darker area in the trunk was quite wet, and much of it spongy.  Who can say how much longer the tree may have lasted.  Now we'll never know.  Alas.

Five hours to fell what took 120 years to grow.

We still feel a little sick.

Still, maybe our little 10 year old tulip tree will take advantage of the gap. And we can enjoy redesigning our newly light filled side yard.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Long and Winding Stair, Part 1: Flipping the Stairs

Looking up the narrow stairway 

Our old house was converted to a duplex in the late 1940s.  As part of the conversion, the main stairs were walled off.  Worse, the stairs began immediately at the front door with no breathing space at all. When we first bought the house, the font door opened onto a tiny vestibule with one door leading to the main floor apartment and directly to the left, the stairs, narrow and airless, leading to another door to the second floor apartment.

Looking left from the front door
The initial vestibule walls and the doors are long gone, but several years ago we hatched a plan to open up the stairs and flip their orientation to give us a much more open front entry hall.  Last summer, we began to execute our plan.

Looking down the narrow stairway
As we have with all of our house renovation projects, first we drew.  Some careful site measurements led us to the realization that if we wanted to flip our stairs within the same footprint, we would need to make use of two split landings to get the necessary height under the stair at the front door.  Here's the new floorplan:
The new "flipped" stair plan
Pages of freehand sketching (not shown), were magically transformed into SketchUp drawings by N.

The new stair plan in SketchUp

The main floor view from the front of the house

The second floor landing

The side view (note the split landings)
Then we visited many stair builders to find someone who could build what we wanted (which was a saga in itself) and gathered bids. And then, on a scorching hot day in July, came the point of no return:
Demolition day 1
Many more demolition days followed, and most looked very similar. I'll spare you the mess.  The problem with a stair demolition is that we still required the stairs.  So at the end of each day of tearing out the stairs, we rebuilt the stairs and climbed, exhausted, up to bed.  We enacted this daily Penelopean feat (only in reverse, and with more machismo), over the course of several weeks.  Here's just one shot of some of the strange geometry of both having and demolishing the stairs simultaneously:

Escheresque. Old stringer and new, temporary stringer, side by side
Bit by bit, we tore out the old walls, framed new walls, and one day, everything was made new and bright with a deep coating of pale pink spray foam insulation.

Pink foam insulation and framing for a possible future window in the stairwell
And then, just one day later, a day that had us contemplating an elevator instead of stairs, the new stairs appeared!

The new, reversed stair

It would be several months before the railing installation could begin.  In that time, we installed a glamourous temporary railing of clamps and 2 x 4s, had the room drywalled and taped, framed the under stair closet, and painted the room. 

Next: The Long and Winding Stair, Part 2, The Railing

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Riches to Rags

Or, in like a lamb, out like a lion.

Our Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) obviously didn't know that old adage about the changeability of March weather.
March 22, 2012
On March 21st, the day before I took the picture above, the magnolia broke bloom (a full month earlier than its typical bloom time).  A day later it was festooned with stunningly beautiful white flowers and abuzz with flying insects. 

Almost full bloom

March, 28, 2012
Then two successive nights of below freezing temperatures withered the blossoms on their stems, and there they remain, brown and bedraggled like dirty rags, yet still firmly attached!   No petals will blow gracefully from the tree and litter the ground this year.  Can't say what became of all the insects.

March, 28, 2012
In yesterday's Globe and Mail, gardener Marjorie Harris warned, as ever, of the dangers of rushing the season and the wisdom of letting the garden rest until the soil has truly warmed.  If only she could speak to the trees! I confess, like my magnolia, I couldn't wait and was out pulling the shoots of garlic mustard--my current nemesis--while the magnolia bloomed.  Today, snow and sleet returned to weigh down the heads of dozens of my early blooming daffodils who've given up and are having a little lie down in the snow.

Same tree, last year, May 5th!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Backyard thugs unmasked: Sciurus carolinensis

We've had our share of losses at the teeth of the local rodent population.  Just before bloom time each year, squirrels decapitate my spring bulbs, and rabbits have decimated many of our small trees and shrubs while searching for food in past harsh winters (see here).  This year's mild winter had lessened our worries about more property damage.  But then one balmy February morning we looked out the window to see this:

Can you spot it?  Look for the tree limb with its bark completely stripped

That limb belongs to a beautiful basswood tree (genus Tilia), which although it appears behind our fence is actually our tree. We hope to reclaim it when we re-fence the property, but only if it can survive this current onslaught.  At first we suspected raccoons because the damage seemed so extensive, but then we caught the true fiend in the act!

Caught in the act
It was a grey squirrel (well, a black grey squirrel, but same species, Sciurus carolinensis).

Oooooh, you varmint!
Now, I abhor violence, but at this moment I was really longing, like Alfie, for a Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle BB gun.  Unfortunately, as you can see, we're in an urban area (note the alignment of neighbouring windows and offending animal) that precludes any violent action--even against known felons.  And so, we plot.   Squirrel catapult?  Squirrel scarecrow?   

Apparently, pregnant female squirrels have been known to strip the bark from several favoured tree species, especially basswood--well known as a source of cordage*--in the search for nesting material.  So, we can look forward to a rapidly expanding population of squirrels who by genetics or observation will continue to strip the bark from our trees.    Squirrel taxidermy?

*I didn't actually know about basswood's cordage potential until this year and neither apparently did the local the local squirrel population, because in twelve winters here this is the first time I've witnessed this specific form of destruction. My source was Google, but theirs? 

A dropped bundle of freshly stripped basswood cordage, now apparently sullied by snow and unsuitable for nesting

the damage done
What we do know, through experience, is that this behaviour is certain to spark copycat crimes.  And I would like to nip them, so to speak, in the bud.  Any suggestions of just desserts for bark-stripping squirrels would be welcome.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kitchen Seating: our hunt for the perfect banquette

Our slumbering cat on the banquette
During the many years we spent planning our kitchen renovation we would often refer to something we called our future dining sofa. We would say, "It will be so wonderful to sit here when we have our dining sofa!"  To our aging cat who loves to lie on the floor between our chairs at mealtimes, risking accidental kicks and all of the dangers of being underfoot just be be nearby, we would say, "When we have our dining sofa, you'll lie right up here between us and save yourself the cumulative effects of being trodden upon daily," or words to that effect.

All this time, we didn't really know what form this dining sofa would take, or whether such a thing specifically existed.  We'd certainly seen sofas pulled up to dining tables, imparting an air of luxury and cosiness to the scene, but we wondered about getting the proportions and firmness just right for the quotidian task of dining.  After all, this was to be our daily perch for all our meals, and not mere set dressing.

When we began searching in earnest for the dining sofa of our dreams, we discovered that our terms weren't quite right.  What we actually wanted, apparently, was not a sofa, but a banquette.  Banquette to me had always conjured an image of something built-in and quite often badly built--like something cobbled together out of plywood in a new chef start-up restaurant. You know the kind of thing: the back and seat meet at right angles, the seat is far too short for comfort and upholstered with meager cushions that do nothing to save your spine from the jolt when you sit, and the base, also constructed at right angles, leaves no room for your heels, so you wind up kicking it every time you move.   Of course we'd also sunk our tired bodies into beautifully upholstered, plush restaurant booths, with properly sprung seats and everything at the ergonomically correct angle. Could both extremes be called banquettes?  We'd need to define our version.

We decided we wanted a piece of  furniture that could be moved from the end of the table to the side--depending on the table orientation and how many were dining.  We wanted a sprung seat, bare legs, durable upholstery that could take a beating, no arms to impede access from the sides, and simple elegant enduring design that would perfectly complement our new kitchen.  Eventually...we found it, the perfect thing: Hickory Chair's Bistro Banquette.

The Bistro Banquette by Mariette Himes Gomez for Hickory chair
Hickory Chair allows you to customize your banquette right down to the size and finish of the upholstery tacks.  We chose a smooth black leather, and dark stain for the legs, very much like the chair version shown below.
The Bistro Chair by Mariette Himes Gomez for Hickory chair
We'd found it, but we also found we couldn't have it for about 12 weeks.  Since the kitchen renovation had taken so many years to come to fruition, we decided several months for the perfect banquette/dining sofa was not too long to wait.

And now, the wait is over: 

Here it is in situ with a lambskin over the seat (luxurious cat claw protection)
When the banquette arrived, it made our much abused Duncan Phyfe dining table (purchased very cheaply via an ad in the Pennysaver, long before the days of Craigslist or Kijiji) look very shabby and out of place with it's medium brown scratched finish.  But the table dimensions were so perfect for our space that we decided to refinish rather than replace it.  I scraped all the peeling veneer from the edge of the table with a razor, sanded the top and the curvy tripod legs, and stained it all with a dark Minwax oil based stain that I mixed to match the legs of the sleek new banquette--so dark that the missing edge veneer is not at all apparent. We we surprised by the effectiveness of the transformation.  I wish I had a picture of its state prior to refinishing. 

Another view without lambskin and refinished Duncan Phyfe table
We now think that the two pieces live quite happily together in the space.  The table gets to stay.  We still need to find chairs.  Right now my wicker-look black resin outdoor IKEA chairs are sitting across from the banquette.  They're quite comfortable, but maybe aren't quite the thing.

Hickory Chair Bistro banquette, Duncan Phyfe table, and IKEA outdoor chairs
But who knows?  It may be sometime before I get around to changing things.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tile Backsplash Update

Our renovated kitchen has existed in a nearly complete state for several months now, but we're still several details short of proclaiming it fait accompli, so I'm going to post about some of the interim stages before revealing the full thing.

the bar sink corner now grouted
When I left off telling the tale, we were in the process of tiling our backsplash (read about it here).  We did this job ourselves and we're very pleased with the results.  We used now ubiquitous subway tile in an ivory colour, but we think it goes well with our house, which was built in 1889. 
Our looming decision was grout colour.  We wanted one to contrast with the tile enough to show the pattern but not so much as to be distracting. What we really wanted was something like the shadow line cast by the ungrouted tile.  After much debate and vacillation, we chose a slightly cool gray called silver (from the Mapei line of sanded grouts).  Our reasoning was that the cool gray would provide some opposition to the ivory of the tile and prevent the wall looking too warm or muddy.  We think we made a good choice. Looking at it now, the grout is a good match for the shadow line of the inset cupboard door--just what we'd hoped for.

Serendipity was at work for us. The ogee trim tile we had left over from our bathroom renovation was an almost perfect match for the moulding our cabinet maker used for the under cabinet light valance (although we did have to order 8 more pieces from California), and we were able to file down a special little corner piece to finish off the line of ogee tile without having it stand proud of the column.

serendiptious match of ogee tile and light valance moulding

We'd originally thought we would clad over our cement and brick column (read about that epic saga here), but in the end we liked the cement and decided to let it stay and just run the tile all the way up to the ceiling on the other side.  I love how this corner turned out.  Our cabinet maker did a beautiful job of scribing the cabinet to the very uneven wall and, now tiled, the corner looks seamless.

tile to the ceiling at the glass corner cabinet

We decided to forgo any special tile pattern over the range, because we thought it would be largely obscured by the plate rack (our modified IKEA Grundtal rack).  We're thrilled with our hacked IKEA rack.  We're not the first to do this, but really, it couldn't be better.  N cut each stainless steel rod of the disassembled IKEA rack to the correct length (42") with a pipe cutter, popped out the little piece meant to the recive the screw using a dowel and a mallet, and epoxied the little piece back in the newly cut rod ends.  The brackets were mounted in chiseled-out recessed niches in the studs behind the range.  We tiled right over the brackets and now we have the best over range shelf anywhere.  We mounted it high enough for plates to catch the most rays from the heat lamps on the range hood.

behind the range backsplash and tiled-in, cutomized IKEA Grundtal pan/plate rack
What you can't see in the photograph is the line of cigar tile pieces that we put behind the pot rack and which allowed us to configure the layout so that we could end with a full tile under the hood (yet another serendipitous point in our tile layout planning).
Even though we chose a medium colour, and sealed the grout, we do have a bit of staining on the grout above the grill on the range from our daily cooking dramas, but it's really barely noticeable.

another view of the corner cabinet and tiled wall

So ends the tile and grout saga.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not last night but the night before...

forty-two robbers came to my door.  Okay, it was last night.  And they all asked very politely.

pumpkins, washed, and awaiting their fate
The first swarm of 6 little girls were costumed as Dorothy, a bee, and various princesses.
Next came a tiny walking Jack-o-lantern, 
and then two social workers (really) asking for non-perishable food items (they got the best haul of the evening),
followed by a witch with a glowing blue skull on her hat.
Then came not one, but two Freddy Kruegers (they were going to dress as a Teletubby and a nerd-ostrich combo, but couldn't muster the energy or so they said)...

Carving in progress--deadly nightshade and poisonous toadstools
The next loud twist of the doorbell was from a stormtrooper.
Then our across the street neighbours arrived with a new babe in arms all dressed in pink,
followed by a witch and a pirate,
a mad scientist,
a leprechaun (self described as the Lucky Charms guy),
a spy,
a sparkle witch,
tiny Papa Smurf,
a ninja,
an alien,
a clown,
a superhero with an H on his chest (Hyperdrive?)
a glamrock zombie (fantastic costume!)
a witch,
a lamb,
a Scream-masked ghost,
a much bigger smurf,
a vampire...
my out of focus, but favorite, barn owl pumpkin
Then, at 8, there was a lull.
Then arrived a panda bear and her very young mom who was also eager for candy, signalling a change in tone.
Next came Super Mario and his teenaged parents,
a marijuana leaf emblazoned flag wearing "green party" member (who liked my magic mushroom pumpkin),
a biker,
a boss bear (sporting a moustache),
a girl (or was it?),
a lingerie model in an overcoat,
and a cowboy (a pimp cowboy explained his friends).
the rechristened magic mushroom pumpkin
And then, like that, they were all gone, bump, into the night.

We survived the onslaught and even have leftover chocolate, mostly of the 70%+ cocoa variety...
as planned.

Regular house-related blog posting to resume shortly.