Backyard

Summer Departs from The Manor

Over the last five months we've done a lot of planning at The Manor, but don't have a great deal to show for it (yet). Here's a quick recap:

After months of my complaining that the house was too big, too old, too falling-down, too overwhelming, Bill offered me a tantalizing offer: what if we alternated one "maintenance" project and one "fancified" project (aiming for one each year)? That way we would always have a fun project in the works to think about while we slog through the stuff that must be done to keep the roof from crashing down on us. 

So, what's on the list for consideration?

I did a quick tally of some of the major (e.g. >$30,000) projects that we would like to tackle at some point in the next 10-15 years and they look something like this:


Fancified Projects

  1. Renovate the kitchen 
  2. Build a carriage house/garage
  3. Put in a pool
  4. Turn attic into a 3rd floor master suite
  5. Landscape the backyard and complete the garden

Maintenance Projects

  1. Replace the pillars on the front porch
  2. Repair/replace the rotten wood on the exterior of the house
  3. Dig up the basement, waterproof it and put in sump pumps

Let's start with the not-fun project. We've started a separate savings account for the pillars replacement project -- we're hoping to have $45,000 ready to go by the spring to get this major structural issue take care of within the next year. (The pillars are load-bearing and I hope every day not to wake up and find the front of the house caved in because the rotted wood has finally given out.) Our contractor consultations have confirmed that this is, indeed, a necessary (exorbitant) expense -- largely because pillars 40+ feet tall need to be cast in a single piece and trucked up on an 18-wheeler truck from Georgia. Then they have to lift the front of the house to remove and replace the pillars and that involves a lot of equipment and manpower. Yee-haw.

But enough about that...

While the pillar fund slowly grows, I've turned my attention to the biggest (and best) project on our list -- the kitchen renovation. We hired a designer in April, who has mocked up an awesome design that manages to include every item on my wishlist. That part was pretty straightforward, but then we hit a roadblock in June because getting a contractor  in our town is apparently like pulling teeth. We're still waiting for bids to come in (hopefully in the next week or two) and then we'll decide how to proceed. 

We estimate that once the project gets started (and it could be 2-3 months until the chosen contractor has an opening), it will take about 4 months to complete the kitchen renovation. That means it's very likely that we won't get started until January, since I don't fancy the idea of hosting Christmas dinner for my extended family in a partially-renovated kitchen.

Smaller projects need love too.

Of course, smaller projects proceed in the meantime, and rather than provide a long description of each, how about a photo montage? Yeah, I like the sound of that too.

Long story short, Bill started working on a garden and we got a lot of great produce this year (but only about 25% of what we will eventually get!), we found a new kitten in the backyard and adopted her into the family (and said goodbye to another one of our cats, who had to be euthanized after major health problems), and got 7 new chicks -- none of which are pulling their weight in the egg department yet.

Next Up

In the three weeks since I started this blog post, it appears that we're inching closer to pulling the trigger on the kitchen remodel, and I've got some lovely new updates to share on the entryway. Expect that blog entry in 4-5 months, since I obviously can't be trusted to update more regularly. Mwah!

Spring Comes to The Manor

Despite a couple of freezing nights this week, I think it's safe to announce that Spring Is Here. We had the lawn mowed for the first time this year and it's amazing how much consistent grass height does for the overall appearance of the backyard.

Don't get me wrong, if you look closely there is still a bunch of winter crap we need to address. The picnic table and chairs have accelerated their rusting, and the umbrella has gotten the goats' attention and not in a good way. They've thoroughly enjoyed hopping over it, kicking it, chewing on it, and head-butting each other on it. Good times.

Bill took advantage of one of my business trips in February to have the giant tree cut down without my input. Why the stump is sticking 6 feet off the ground is a mystery to me, but I'm not in a mental place to have a rational discussion of how to deal with the remaining eyesore. 

The animals are SO HAPPY that we're getting more sunshine and longer days. They bask in the sun and follow us around making contented noises (and sometimes sneezing).

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Our chicken production is also back up, after a few weeks of getting just a couple of eggs a day. The ladies have stopped molting (it was a little gross) and we're now collecting 7-9 eggs each night.

If I had to prioritize future improvements, here is what I wish the backyard fairy would do:

  1. Install a lattice fence/guard around the guest room A/C unit, since the goats have now chewed through the sensor TWICE. 
  2. Fix the chicken coop (the metal guard on the nesting boxes has come partially undone and is hanging by a thread) and finish painting it.
  3. Install gutters on the barn to direct runoff away and prevent "swampland" problems around the building perimeter.
  4. Paint the barn to match the chicken coop, and install flower boxes.
  5. Get rid of the tree stump. (I tried lighting it on fire. It didn't work.)
  6. Spray paint the picnic table and chairs (color TBD), and find a place to set them up so that we're not sitting directly in the grass.
  7. Hire a designer to create a master plan (gazebo? pathway from backyard to stable yard?)
  8. Fix the back porch, which is now a mix of levels, wood color, and functionality.

Sadly, I don't have a backyard fairy, so we'll just have to see what Bill tackles over the next few months.

Fall 2015 at The Manor

 Maude, one of our remaining chickens who *mostly* has the good sense to stay away from the dogs.

Maude, one of our remaining chickens who *mostly* has the good sense to stay away from the dogs.

When I last left you, dear reader, the basement was flooded, Bill was out of town, and I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I'm happy to report that Bill is back and the basement is dry. The nervous breakdown seems to have stepped back a pace, but is ready to launch at the slightest provocation.

What's going on with the basement?

I'm so glad you asked. After pumping 800 gallons of water outside, the basement continued to flood for the rest of the weekend. A specialist came out to examine the problem and told us that because our house has a double-brick foundation, we can't do exterior waterproofing and instead need to consider digging up the concrete to put in gutters and pipes along the interior walls of the basement, which will then divert water into a (new) sump pump. Cha-ching.

Oh, and our insurance doesn't cover water damage from flooding, so we had to pay for the emergency help out of pocket. We don't have flood insurance. Remind me again how my husband's job is convincing communities to require flood insurance for just such occasions...

What's going on with the chickens?

Well, we're now down to 10 chickens. You'll recall that Doris (our firstborn!) turned out to be a rooster and was re-homed over the summer. A couple of weeks ago, the chickens started venturing over the fence from their safe and secure stable area into our backyard. Where our dogs roam. With a taste for chicken.

Sadly, one of them wasn't quick enough to make it back over the fence, and was killed by the dogs. In a matter of second, the air was full of feathers (seriously, it was like a feather pillow exploded) and the chicken was dead on the ground with a broken neck. No spurting blood (thank goodness) but it was pretty disturbing to have to pick it up off the ground and get it disposed of in the three minutes before the kids arrived home from school. 

At least the chickens have mostly decided to stay on their side of the fence. We're planning to clip their flight feathers this weekend so help minimize their explorations. Stay tuned for that horror story soon.

 There doesn't seem to be much mourning for dead "Brown Chicken #6". It's business as usual in The Manor stables.

There doesn't seem to be much mourning for dead "Brown Chicken #6". It's business as usual in The Manor stables.

Fighting "The Man"

The new grass seed is coming in nicely, and the stable is looking less desperate. This comes at a good time, since it turns out that our city is doing a comprehensive review of the zoning ordinances and is proposing that a property lot under 5 acres be limited to four chickens and no animals over 50 lbs. That means that our very spacious "almost 2 acre" property would be over the limit on chickens and would not be allowed to have goats.

Heresy! Here is a photo of approximately 1/8 of our property. Does this photo look overcrowded with livestock? I think not.

 This is a tiny portion of our backyard -- does it look like we have too many chickens? Absolutely not.

This is a tiny portion of our backyard -- does it look like we have too many chickens? Absolutely not.

And here is a photo of another angle of our backyard -- this is separate from the stable area where the chickens roam, and there is another 2/3 of the backyard not pictured. Does it look like the goats are being mistreated with lack of space? Or that our neighbors mind living next to these pets?

 I think you can probably tell from their little pot bellies that these goats have plenty of land upon which to gorge themselves.  

I think you can probably tell from their little pot bellies that these goats have plenty of land upon which to gorge themselves.  

All of this is to say that Bill and I are moving into high gear. We're in the process of figuring out the best way to advocate for more reasonable zoning rules regarding chickens and livestock. Bill's in communication with the local extension agent and I'm going to be reaching out to members of the City Council and the planning department. Wish us luck!

Skid Steer 1, Tennis Court 0

Two days before I left for Thailand, we pulled the trigger on one of the biggest backyard projects: the removal of the tennis courts in the backyard. In case you didn't know, let me assure you that while a tennis court may be expensive to maintain, it is exorbitant to remove. (It takes a lot of time, machinery, and disposal fees.) So for this stage, we just tackled one of the tennis courts -- in the area that Bill spent all last year clearing.

We got a quote, and decided to act.

When you are willing to write a check, it's amazing what you can accomplish. The next morning a crew showed up with a skid steer, a jackhammer, and a giant truck for hauling debris. They cut down all of the trees along the property line, cleared away all the brush and trash that had accumulated, and tore up the tennis court. It was a glorious site to behold.

Ta Da!

I didn't get to see the finished product until I got home -- and WOW is it a difference. The entire space is flat as a pancake, and mercifully free of weeds. 

We're currently plotting our next move back there, including:

  • Putting a new, better fence up along the property line. Because this area will eventually be a massive garden, it's imperative that we have a deer-proof fence. And since Bill wants to do an entire wall of espalier trees, we're looking at a lattice structure about 8 feet tall. That will give us protection from deer, a structure to espalier the trees against, and some privacy from the road.
  • Finalizing the garden layout, including the location of raised beds, a new water line, an area for composting, a greenhouse for wintering plants, and a long table with a sink for harvesting veggies and re-potting herbs. Bill has a pretty solid design in mind, but we need to revisit it again and confirm that we're happy before we start buying supplies.
  • Building the raised garden beds. I want them to be brick (like this version, which would mimic our brick house beautifully), while Bill is arguing for some kind of wood (like this version) or possibly wood-metal combination (like this version). There are going to be a LOT of raised beds, so we need to carefully consider cost, time to build, and longevity. 

We also need to figure out what we're going to do with the ground -- should we try to suppress the grass (and inevitable weeds) by laying down a barrier and covering it with stones or mulch? Or should we allow the grass to grow up (less maintenance, but more headache with weeds)? These and other questions are the frequent topics of conversation at The Manor these days. If you have an opinion (especially if you agree with me!), leave a comment.

Quick Fixes

The backyard and porch projects have eaten up almost all of our "Make The Manor Perfect, or at Least Structurally Sound" budget so for the next few months we'll be focused on smaller things. Here's my current list:

Better lighting.

Almost every room in The Manor needs better lighting, but I'm going to focus on the kitchen, the master bedroom, and my sewing room. With winter's early sunsets fast approaching, these are the places I most want to brighten in the evenings.  

Wall art. 

It's been 18 months since we moved in and while I'm still terrified of the plaster walls, it's time to move past the fear. I'd like to start a gallery wall in the entryway, as well as get a few things up in the guest room.

Painting the barn and storage buildings. 

Okay, this one is actually a job I'm saving for Bill. Although I'd my goal is to get the job done by winter I might have to get out there and help. Ideally I want ask of the outbuildings to be blue with white trim. The first task is finishing the trim on the chicken coop and fence to make sure that were on the right track. (The Tiffany Blue is currently looking VERY bright but Bill will kill me if I change my mind. So I need to be sure before risking my life with another set of color swatches. 

Seeding the stable area.

We had to get our house appraised for some paperwork last month, and the appraisal assistant was from Kenya. As we were walking around the yard, she mentioned that the stable area looked like the backyards in rural Kenya, with chickens and goats running freely around. She meant it nostalgically, but when she said the words "with lots of scrub" I realized that we needed to reseed the area.

The vision was a continuation of the backyard, with regular grass (and the occasional weed, sure). Instead, we have a partially seeded area that is pretty rocky and filled with weeds that are approaching my waist. The goats are shirking their "eat anything and keep down the brush" responsibilities, so it's imperative that we get this problem under control before next spring.

Unfortunately, we'll probably have to keep the chickens locked up in their run for a couple of weeks to give the seeds a chance to root and grow before the seeds are set upon as tasty morsels. I am normally against restricting their space, but if it means a more aesthetically pleasing yard, lock 'em up.

Things we will not be doing: 

  • Anything more to Sarah's room, until she learns some self control and stops writing on the walls and furniture (including the antique dresser I bought and painted for her -- yes, she is lucky to still be alive and kicking). Her brother went through a similar phase at the same age that seemed to last about a year. Maybe next fall we can revisit painting the walls, recovering the armchair, replacing the carpet, and restaining the bedframe.
  • Dealing with the heating situation. After dealing with the frigid temperatures in The Manor (particularly the kitchen)last winter I would have sworn in my life that we'd have a proper heating solution in place by this October. (Probably gas fireplace inserts in some of the existing fireplaces, which were designed for coal.) But the price tag is pretty steep and we've blown or budget on other stuff. So instead I'll probably just wrap myself in blankets and drag a couple space heaters around with me. 
  • Fixing the columns out front. While this is soon going to become a serious problem, the $50,000 to $60,000 it's going to cost to completely replace the rotting columns just isn't practical right now. We'll probably aim to replace one each year (starting with the one in the worst shape) and spread the project out over four years. Keeping our fingers crossed that they continue to hold up until we can get to them. ##loadbearing 

So, dear reader, what home improvement projects are you planning to tackle over the winter? Any particular projects that gives you nightmares? I have a recurring dream where I'm standing on the front porch watching the columns disintegrate before my eyes, but am helpless to move before they squash me like a bug. Good times.