Renovation regrets in Illinois

One of my former bosses used the phrase “even better if.” As in, “We just finished this big project, and it went really well. But what are our even-better-ifs?” It was a great way of looking positively at areas for improvement.

Last week I posted one of my renovation regrets and asked other people to share theirs. Sarah in Illinois immediately thought of one at her house. But instead of calling it a regret, I’m going to call it an even-better-if. Because she and her husband Steve did make lots of improvements to their kitchen. There’s just one little spot that could be even better.

Early when Steve and I first started dating he made the decision to renovate his kitchen. Both of us worked on expanding his small galley kitchen into an existing dining room. We removed a wall, relocated all plumbing and electrical and more than doubled the counter area.

However, it wasn’t until we were really using the newly expanded kitchen that we realized we had a design flaw.

We made a small walkway to enter and exit the kitchen and although this is plenty large enough to walk in and out, we did not realize until much later that this opening was the prime “hanging out” spot. There is always someone standing at this opening.

This is the ideal section of counter top to do meal prep because it is so close to the refrigerator. If you need to enter or exit the kitchen or reach the refrigerator, you will have no choice but to squeeze by someone standing right in that spot.

We have considered re-configuring the kitchen but since we laid all of the floor tile in the room around the cabinets, this is a much much larger project than we want to tackle at this time.

This is an instance where we really should have lived and worked in the space before making final decisions. We learned our lesson and hope we have fewer renovation regrets in the future.

Argh. I’m sure that’s frustrating, Sarah. Matt gets super bugged when people are in his way when he’s cooking. Most of the family has learned to steer clear! Hopefully you can enjoy the other fixes that you did make. More counter space is always good.

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Morning glory surprise

As a teenager, I once planted a Morning Glory at the base of a light pole by the walkway at my parents’ house. I carefully trained it up the pole and enjoyed the heart shaped leaves and trumpet blossoms all summer.

There’s something about Morning Glories that make them especially special, in my opinion. I like everything about them. So does Sarah in Illinois. She’s sharing a surprise Morning Glory that she’s been enjoying this year.

Every year in the spring when seed displays start popping up in every store, I always buy several packets. I buy all brands and all price ranges. When I see the displays that advertise 4 for $1 or even 10 for $1 I stock up knowing that the germination rate of these bargain packets is not very high.

Last year I remember buying a packet of Morning Glory seeds. I planted them along the outside of the chicken’s run. I had two small vines that climbed up the outside of the run and I was able to enjoy the beautiful blooms every morning.

This spring I recognized the leaf shape sprouting out of the same spot. I was so excited that they had reseeded themselves over the winter.

I started training the vines every morning to climb up the outside of the run. Then of course the chickens became curious of this green treat that was within their reach so I had to create a barrier between them.

My persistence paid off.

Every morning I have 10-20 new blooms on this beautiful vine. And the chickens can enjoy a little shade!

Did you have any surprise plants pop up this year? Do you have any favorite climbing vines? Can you pass the seed displays without buying when they show up in the spring?

What a treat, Sarah. I love it when plants pop up unexpectedly. Although this year we have a surprise plant that’s turned into a major vine and has become quite an obstacle. I’m not sure even chickens could keep it under control. I think I may have to talk about it next week!

Hand feeding hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are regular guests in Illinois for Sarah. This year she has more visitors than ever… and she’s getting even more up close and personal in a really exciting way.

We are in what I am guessing is the peak of the season for hummingbirds here in Illinois. I am not sure how many birds we are feeding but I know that last weekend they went through over a gallon of syrup in two days.

There are a few sources that say that an accurate way to guess how many hummingbirds you have is to count how many birds are at your feeder at one time and multiply it by six. So for example, if the most birds you see at your feeder are 3, you are probably really feeding closer to 18.

One evening Steve and I tried to count as fast as we could how many hummingbirds were at our feeders at one time and we feel we were pretty accurate at counting 30. So by this estimate we may be feeding close to 180 hummingbirds! I’m not sure if this is true but I know for sure that we have a bunch.

The more I watch them the more I am fascinated by them. I just want to learn more and make our property as inviting as possible for them.

I have had an idea brewing in my mind for quite a while now that I want to hand feed or possibly even hold a hummingbird. So I started collecting the little tubes that come on some fresh flowers. I thought it was just the right size to hold in my hand and already had a small hole for the hummingbird to eat from.

Now I just had to come up with something to attract the hummingbird to this feeder. I looked around the house and found a red plastic cup.

I decided that would be easy enough to cut a flower shape. So I just cut the bottom out of the cup and then cut a petal shape all the way around the disc.

My first idea to attach the flower to the rubber cap on the tube was to use a hot glue gun. Unfortunately this did not hold tight very long. Steve found a bottle of glue we had sitting around the house and it worked perfectly.

After filling the tube with syrup the only thing left to do was hold the tube very very still near where the hummingbirds stop for their meals, and wait. And wait and wait and wait.

I practiced a lot of patience one Saturday evening. But it paid off:

Have you ever hand-fed a hummingbird? Do you ever collect something thinking one day it will be useful? Do you ever have trouble practicing patience?

This is awesome, Sarah! I’ve tried coaxing our chickadees to eat from my hand, but I don’t think I gave it enough time. Apparently I have trouble practicing patience! (Although I blame the cold.)

A simple deck switch in Illinois

In Illinois Sarah is enjoying outdoor living. She and her husband Steve made what turned out to be a simple change to improve their enjoyment of one of their favourite outdoor spots.

I’ve mentioned several times that Steve and I like to spend a lot of time on our deck. We designed and built it the summer of 2013. Then two years later we cleaned and sealed it.

We have gotten so much use out of it, whether it is just Steve and mefr or one of the several the birthday parties, 4th of July parties and girl’s night that we have had on the deck.

As much as we have used the deck, Steve had noticed that it could be improved. When we designed it we had two sets of steps: one directed towards a door of the house that we use often and one directed towards our garden.

However, after a few years of use Steve pointed out that we could really improve the flow if we moved the steps. What first seemed like a huge undertaking was really a quick change up. Thankfully the steps were built independently of the deck so after removing several deck screws the whole set of steps easily moved.

Then taking a few screws out of the railing and using a circular saw to cut it down we were easily able to replace it where we had removed the steps. Thankfully Steve has really good vision, because when he mentioned doing this I thought it was going to be a whole day of work and honestly it took less than an hour!

Moving the steps to a longer side did bring up a small issue. The stairs were narrower than the opening. Steve and I both felt that some tall planters would guide people towards the stairs and a railing wouldn’t be needed.

We found these planters at Lowe’s. To fill them we wanted something permanent that would look nice in the winter so we also purchased these bushes. Then we bought petunias and verbena for color during the summer. We could not be happier with how they turned out. (And yes that is Blitz’s very own baby pool in the background.)

Also I had to divide and move my mums around to fill in where the steps had been. We still need to decide what material and where we want a walkway but overall we are thrilled with the changes.

The deck just feels like it makes more sense this way and we sure like to spend time sitting out there and enjoying each other’s company.

Do you have a gathering spot at your house? Ever had a project that just wasn’t working and you made the decision to rework it? What flowers would you use to fill those big pots?

What a great switch, Sarah. I’m impressed that it was such an easy change for you. The planters are a good solution.

Garden update from Illinois

Happy July 4th to all of my American readers. Our resident American, Sarah, is taking a break from her Independence Day festivities to share a glimpse of how gardening is going so far this summer in Illinois.

Happy 4th of July to all the American readers! As you are reading this we should be celebrating Independence Day with a fish fry and fireworks in our back yard.

When Steve and I discussed what sides to make to serve with the catfish, I knew that my goal was to make dishes that included as many foods as possible from our garden.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that we got a slow start to our garden this year. Unfortunately, we have struggled ever since. Walking through the garden last weekend Steve said, “This is the worst our garden has ever looked.” I had to agree.

We had several heavy rains, and it seemed that every time the garden dried up enough to actually walk the rows, another big rain came. Looking up the rainfall for June, it shows that we only had one inch more than average, but I think the timing was our issue.

However, our garden may look awful and yields are down, but we have still been able to have some fresh vegetables.

We have had the best luck with our cucumbers. We have picked enough pickling cucumbers to make 3 quarts and a pint of refrigerator pickles.

Steve had never made refrigerator pickles before and after giving him a little tutorial of how to do it, he has taken over and made it his project. He has tried 3 different recipes and tweaked them to how he thinks they could be improved. The pint above is his version of a hot pickle which included a jalapeno and some red pepper flakes. Hopefully after a few more weeks of marinating and adjusting the recipe, I can share his final version.

Even though the garden is not exactly like we like it, we are still fighting through. Over the past weekend, I actually MOWED our garden rows. I can’t say that I have ever done that before.

Then I was able to pass through with the tiller and pull weeds by hand.

We have a long way to go, but it is looking more like a garden now.

How is your garden doing this year? Have you had to fight weeds? Rain? Any other adversities?

Ahem… fellow garden mower here. I’ll just leave it at that.

Round herb garden with birdbath

Summer is just around the corner. In Illinois, Sarah is already well underway with summer projects. In fact, she’s already crossed one off her list–a new herb garden.

I seem to always have project ideas spinning around in my head. With Pinterest, magazines, pictures of other people’s gardens and yards, I have plenty of inspiration at my fingertips.

So it is such a wonderful feeling to take one of those ideas and bring it to life. If you remember back to March when I posted that I wanted to move my herbs, I had some ideas of what I wanted them to look like.

Well, I am happy to report that I as soon as the weather warmed up enough to work outside, I got started on this project.

This was the inspiration picture that I chose to go with:

I chose the small patch of grass in our back driveway. I have big dreams of eventually filling it all with flowers, but thankfully I have learned to start with small bites at a time so that I don’t become overwhelmed.

My focal point is my grandmother’s birdbath. So I first decided where I wanted it to sit. Then I took a measuring tape and measured out 4 feet from the bath in several different directions and marked it with spray paint.

Next, I shoveled the top layer of sod out of the circle. This was a long and tedious process but I believed it helped prevent my bed from being overrun with weeds and grass.

When all of the sod was removed I went over the bed with the tiller. This was a little difficult because it is a small area for as large of a tiller as we have but after wrestling it around for a bit, I got all of the soil turned over.

I then used twine and some scrap boards to lay out where I wanted to plant the herbs and where I wanted the stepping stones to go.

I found some stepping stones at the home improvement store and slowly started to see the herbs fill in.

I have cilantro, chives, basil, oregano, dill, salvia, yarrow, tarragon, and rosemary so far. Some of the herbs such as dill, cilantro and chives we use very often. I don’t use the salvia or yarrow, but they add some pretty color.

One more feature I added was a solar powered fountain for the birdbath.

I have to keep a close eye on it because it can occasionally empty the birdbath, but mostly it works perfectly well.

I still am going to make a couple decisions such as if I am going to add more mulch or maybe plant creeping thyme between the stepping stones. But overall I am pretty happy with my progress and cant wait to see the rest of the bed fill in.

Do you have a designated herb garden? A birdbath? Any project ideas swimming around in your head that you need to get started on?

Your grassy patch looks so much like our turnaround, Sarah. My goal is to have ours covered in flowers too, but I’ve stopped halfway because it’s definitely a big job. The turnaround is home to our birdbath too… although we still haven’t put ours out yet. 😦 I love the garden that you’ve built. The herbs are filling is so well, and it’s so special to use your grandmother’s birdbath.

Hummingbirds arrive in Illinois

Wildlife sightings are one of the highlights of living at the farm. I particularly love to spot hummingbirds because they’re some of our rarer visitors. Sarah in Illinois enjoys her hummingbirds too, and she’s here today with her latest sightings.

Most days I have a to-do list a mile long, but Steve and I still take the time to sit out on our deck, have a drink and throw the ball for Blitz. We also like to watch the hummingbirds.

They seemed to show up late this year. Looking at my garden calendar (see, I use it all the time!) last year the first hummingbirds showed up on May 3. I waited patiently–well not so patiently after friends and family gave me their updates:

While I was mowing I would look over at the feeder every time I made a pass by the house.

After several days, I dumped out the syrup in the feeder and made a fresh batch. I didn’t want them to have any excuse not to stop at my house!

I finally was rewarded with a couple visitors and I shared with my friends on May 12 that I counted 6 at my feeder at one time.

I now have 4-5 regularly visiting through the day. I feel like this is less than I normally have at this time of year, but since they got a late start I am hoping that that is why I have fewer little friends.

I have talked about my love of hummingbirds before, and here is a reminder of how to make your own syrup:

Boil 4 parts water with one part white sugar just until sugar dissolves. Then let cool.

You do not need to add any food coloring. The hummingbirds will find the feeder. You can store the extra syrup in the refrigerator for a few days.

Make sure to keep an eye on your feeder. If the syrup begins to look cloudy or you see bugs, ants or other insects floating in it, throw out the syrup and add fresh.

Anyone else have their hummingbird feeders out? What breed of hummingbirds are in your area? We only see Ruby-Throated around here but I know the west coast gets a much larger variety.

Hummingbird watching sounds like a great way to end the day, Sarah. I’ve seen one bird this year, flitting around Ellie’s diapers as they dried on the clothesline! Apparently he enjoyed the bright colours.

Garden beginnings in Illinois

Our vegetable garden is very delayed this year–and still mostly to be determined–thanks to Ellie. So I’m living vicariously through other people’s gardens. Sarah has made it through the early uncooperative weather that delayed her garden start. Planting has officially happened in Illinois and she’s sharing the details today.

If you read my last post, I mentioned that we finally made our way out of winter. Which means we had to jump quickly into planting the garden. We were about 4 weeks behind our normal planting time. As an example, we usually try to plant potatoes on Good Friday (this year March 30) and we were not able to get them into the ground until April 29.

Another problem that we are facing is that we seem to have jumped directly from winter to summer. We went from cold days and many nights of frost to 85F (29C) every day.

This is hardest on some of the colder weather crops like lettuce, kale, radish and possibly carrots. I went ahead and planted them but, they aren’t looking very hopeful.

Here are some of the other vegetables that we planted:

Broccoli

Tomatoes

Bell peppers, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, tomatillos, zucchini, pepperoncini peppers and
cucumbers.

And even though they got such a late start, I think the potatoes are going to make it.

Another issue we are having is that it has been very dry. So every day after work I fill two 5 gallon buckets twice and carry them out to the garden and water each individual plant.

There has been some discussion between Steve and I on running a water line out there. If that happens, I will be sure to document it!

Have you started planting anything where you live? Are you having any struggles with your vegetables? Temperatures? Rainfall? Do you get a workout by hauling water to your garden?

That’s a lot of water lugging, Sarah! I definitely vote for a water line, but in our experience running the line is probably as much work as hauling water all season. Perhaps rent a small backhoe if you decide to put one in. We transplanted a tree this weekend, so we’ve been hauling buckets, as there’s no way a hose will reach the spot I chose. That seems to be the extent of our gardening so far, so I will continue to enjoy your updates. Good job with all of your planting!

Spring comes to Illinois

One of my rituals every spring is walking around the property to see what plants survived the winter. It’s always a win to see buds, leaves and blossoms appearing on bushes and trees–particularly the young ones. Sarah has been doing the same at her home in Illinois. She’s sharing her wins, losses and new additions in her post today.

Spring! It’s finally here. This honestly felt like the longest winter we have ever had. As soon as the weather was warm enough to work outside, Steve and I jumped in on several of the projects that we have been waiting patiently to tackle.

Last year you might remember that we planted some fruit trees. This year we noticed that the cherry tree didn’t make it through the winter.

I knew that I needed to add another tree anyway for them to bear fruit, so Steve and I picked up a couple new sweet cherry trees.

The other trees that we planted last year look like they are doing okay. The peach tree even started to bloom.

Unfortunately none of my blueberry bushes made it through the winter. I wasn’t too surprised however because they really didn’t look very good last fall. I had purchased bare root blueberries last year, and I just don’t think I have very good luck with bare root plants. So this year we bought nice healthy bushes. I feel like these have a much better chance of making it.

I am watering them faithfully. Remember the watering rule that my mom taught me?

Water every day for a week, every week for a month and every month for a year.

Things are becoming very busy around here and I love it. This is the best time of year.

What is the weather like where you are? Do you have any fruit trees? Do you have any luck with bare root plants?

Mmmmm… you have me thinking ahead to summer fruit, Sarah. I added blueberry bushes last year as well. They were not bare root, but they too were not looking super spunky by the end of the season. This spring has taken so long to arrive that I’m still at the fingers crossed stage for our grapes, blueberries and blackberries. I’m really hoping I see buds soon.

Using a gardening calendar to track annual progress

Spring seems to be taking its time coming this year. A late-season ice storm meant that less than a week ago, the farm was still covered in snow. Conditions in Illinois are the same. Sarah in Illinois uses a calendar to track her annual progress in the garden, and she knows exactly how delayed the season is this year compared to last. She’s sharing her calendar–and lack of progress–today.

For someone who loves spending time out in the garden, this spring has been pretty frustrating.

On April 9 we woke up to this:

I keep a gardening calendar. Every year I write notes on it when I plant certain things, when I till the garden, when I see my first hummingbird, etc. Then each year when I get a new calendar I transfer all of my notes to the new calendar. Here is an example for April:

It is really handy to use as reference for anything outdoor related. However, this year it is really frustrating because I can constantly see how behind I am. Look closely:

Two years ago I tilled the garden on April 16 and last year I tilled it for the SECOND time on April 15. This year weather has prevented us from stepping one foot in the garden.

Now obviously I can’t do a thing about the weather, so I try not to let it upset me very much. Plus there are sure signs that the weather will warm up.

Remember the picture I posted above? Here is that very same tree 11 days later:

Has spring arrived where you live? Do you keep a gardening calendar or something similar? Have you been able to start working in your garden?

Oh Sarah, I feel your pain. We had sunshine over the weekend, and things not only melted, they finally started to dry out. I’m not sure that spring is officially here, but it seems like it might come someday… probably… hopefully.