Big Projects Completed as Autumn Arrives

The weather is tempering and the leaves are already falling from the trees. My apologies to all of you that despise the shortening of the days, but autumn is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Although it means no more of the best tomato sandwiches on the planet, I will do my best to fill the void with bonfires, dark beer, pie pumpkins, and dining al fresco. With out-of-town guests visiting, Saturday was a perfect morning for a full waffle breakfast at the picnic table under the old Ash tree. Bonfire

With the desire to be outside more comes the desire to finalize some of the outdoor spaces. After so much inside work over the last year, it’s nice to close the loop on some of the big projects and enjoy the small amounts of our newfound spare time.

Basement Stairs of Death

One project that was imperative to complete was the redesign of the narrow staircase leading into the new basement kitchen, installed sometime in the 1950s. Besides the fact that it was a serious safety hazard with slick, worn bricks, too-tall risers, and very narrow treads, the drain-line that it encompassed to move storm water away from the foundation was faulty and continuously backed up into the basement during a heavy rain. The basement flooded several times, even after the new cabinets were installed. No doubt this had to be a priority!

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The old staircase of dangerous, damaged bricks and a faulty drain

The start to the project was simple: carefully tear out the old, damaged bricks and cracked concrete pad and then find the best masons in the area to lay new ones. Away we went with the removal and excavation of the old drain line. It was a mess once we discovered that the exterior drain was actually diverting back into the house’s main pluming lines – a big recipe for disaster. That was quickly capped and a new design was implemented to direct the water through PVC down the hill. This would reduce any risk of interior flooding.

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Phil and Chris look on as removal of the old concrete pad begins

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Mr. Phil completed the first phase of the work and was a real inspiration to watch. He did all of the work himself with only a small excavator and hand tools, his intuition and experience guiding him each step of the way. Thankfully his experience with historic masonry meant that he was very conscious of the existing brick foundation, chimney, and intersections of old and new brick.

Rebuilt Stairs

Once the modified drain was installed, the new bricks could be laid. It was one early morning that I heard the loudest truck coming up the driveway carrying two pallets of the most beautiful handmade bricks. It is incredible how much they look like the original bricks in the foundation.

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Beautiful handmade bricks to match the existing historic fabric of the house’s foundation

The best masons in the area, the father and son team of Hamp and Hampton, laid the bricks using old pattern styles and mixed mortar according to historic standards. Having worked on so many of the area’s oldest homes, their knowledge of historic building techniques was invaluable during the project. Not to mention they are two of the best storytellers. There were plenty of times at the end of a long week that I would look forward to sitting and chatting with them as they worked.

img_9788The new drain is laid and the brick side walls become a reality
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The bricks are laid with care, waiting for mortar, while the new door takes its place

As much as I enjoyed the company of everyone working on the new entry, I was ready to have exterior access to the basement again. Carrying groceries upstairs and then downstairs had become a bit cumbersome after more than a month. Finally the finishing touches were installed including the new door and accent lighting to highlight the beautiful masonry work.

img_0278-3Smokey guarding the new basement stoop

Now we have a well-functioning basement entrance that is both safe and carries the water away from the foundation of the house – just in time to enjoy the outdoors more. My next project is a small kitchen garden just to the right of the stairs with herbs and flowers for cutting. Stay tuned!

Summer’s Bounty

I can’t remember a summer where I’ve enjoyed the fruits and vegetables of the season more than this one. Although it was a busy summer with work and more house projects, there was always a chance to spend time in the garden, to stock up on local produce at the King George Farmers Market, and to get creative in the kitchen with fun ingredients. For the most part, baring a few calamities and skinned knees along the way, summer has been a very joyous occasion.

Blackberry Invasion

One of my favorite Saturday mornings was spent picking blackberries, trying to avoid the impending one-hundred-degree heat index that has pervaded the last month. With winding paths mowed through the tall grass, long sleeves, canvas pants, and enough DEET to take down a small elephant, I ventured out to return with more berries than I consumed. That’s a very tough order.

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I returned with just enough to get started on my favorite blackberry cobbler, which would be the primary course at lunch that day (don’t judge), with another made later in the week. (The second one would definitely be topped with vanilla ice cream). The recipe is a perfect balance of sweet, tender biscuit, and fruit juice that has simmered into a syrup.

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Over the next few weeks, we picked pound upon pound of blackberries that we froze or made into jam. Blackberry jam is one of my necessities for year-round survival, and sometimes I simply eat it with a spoon, it is so good! A few years ago, my friend Nicole told me that cooking jam in copper was the only way to fly. So last spring, I bought my first copper jam pan and gave it a try. I don’t know if it’s the increased evaporation, the contact with the metal, or just the sheer beauty of cooking in copper that makes the jam so much more delicious. Regardless, I’m hooked and will only go back to stainless for jam when it’s a necessity.IMG_0026

Five pounds of wild blackberries simmering in the copper jam pan. The fruit seems to glow!

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The first batch of blackberry jam for the summer

The Garden

In the garden, some of my favorite varieties have really taken off this year. I’m hoping it’s the hard work I put into amending the soil and preparing the beds, but somehow I think it’s just good luck. You might remember my love for white acre peas, which I planted extra of this year. Other favorites that made an appearance include bowling red okra, straight eight cucumbers, early yellow squash, and pineapple cossack ground cherries. What are you growing in your garden?

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The ground cherries look like small paper lanterns on the bottom of the basket

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The white acre peas have been prolific this year, much to my liking

With another few weeks of summer left, the final tomatoes are just now ripening and fall planting will be underway. Here’s to the dog days of summer as we all look to cooler breezes and another joyous season just around the corner.

Ode to a Pine

Thankfully the renovation storms inside have died down, but the summer storms outside have raged many nights. It seems that three or four blow through each week, marked as blobs of orange and red on the radar screen. When you have a large number of eighty-year-old trees scattered around your house, and little resource to keep them as well maintained as they should be, a brightly colored radar blob can be an easy source of anxiety.

With last week’s storm, our fear came true, and we lost part of the old Eastern White Pine. It was inevitable, and we had even planned to remove it in the next couple of months. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different timeline.

Eastern White PineWith the wind howling and the rain pounding against the study windows, I could still hear the characteristic woosh that only a forty-or-fifty-foot-plus great White Pine could make as it fell. And then there was the expected, and yet very shocking, crack and thud.

Eastern White Pine

With a flashlight in the rain, and a deep fear that it had hit the corner of the house, I could see just enough to know that the tree had thankfully missed the building. Unfortunately, it landed on the side of the old Siberian Elm, taking a large branch with it.

Eastern White Pine

Over the past few days, we’ve managed to cut up the smaller pieces, moving them out of the way to prepare the bigger logs for firewood. It’s not hard to see why the Eastern White Pines were so prized in colonial days. This single felled leader is beautiful and strong wood. Known as “mast trees,” and used extensively in ship building, Eastern White Pines were the source of many attempts at control during, and leading up to, the Revolutionary War.

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It remains to be seen how long we can wait before removing the other two leaders. One is even taller than this one, and neither are in structurally sound condition. Once this pine is gone, there is only one other on the property. It’s perhaps time to think about planting a couple more for future generations.

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Many years of wisdom

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The old pine in the snow

Vegetable Garden Evolution

With it being nearly 100 degrees in Northeast Virginia with no pool in sight, writing about the garden seemed like a much better deal than working in it. It has been three seasons since I dug my first garden bed out here, and I thought you might like to see its evolution.

I’ve often heard Margaret, my friend who is a landscape designer, talk about the cultivation of new garden beds and how it takes about three seasons to achieve a mature space. While she was probably referring to flower and ornamental beds, I heard Margaret’s voice when we moved in two and a half years ago. I knew that getting started early, even with a basic plan, would yield a mature space sooner than later.

Season 1

The picture below is our first attempt at cultivating an old, fallow field that once held cattle. Ambitious at 40′ x 20′, we tilled in Spring 2014 with a questionable $100 tiller from Craigslist.  The combination of very clay-heavy soil and a cheap tiller made your whole body tremble for hours after, but we got it done and started planting.

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The results were amazing to see (and eat!), and I learned so much about seed varieties, what worked, and what didn’t do so well. This would be the basis for the next two seasons. Vegetable Garden

Season 2

The second season was a bit tougher as the indoor renovations had begun and most reserve energy went into completing those projects. But I was still on a mission to keep cultivating the garden space, making it even better after year one.

A cold winter gave me the chance to ponder new designs and best practices. I stumbled across the book, A Rich Spot of Earth, an exploration of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello, by Peter Hatch. I was mesmerized. Jefferson’s planning, thoughtfulness, and overall vision to create a diverse and beautiful garden was inspiring to me. After a visit to Monticello and some drawings of my own, I had a clear path forward.

Vegetable Garden Plans

Now knowing more about sun angles, wind, and the soil, we decided to rotate the entire garden angle just slightly to better meet southern exposures, and we expanded its overall size to 60′ x 30′. This increase would give me the ability to reduce some of the bed sizes for better access for weeding and planting, further reducing soil compaction from having to walk on it. One of my goals is to minimize the need for deep tilling altogether, emphasizing a low-impact approach at the beginning and end of each season. The garden’s size increase would also allow me to add walkways, fencing, and other design elements to the space.

Vegetable Garden

Before the second season ended, I was able to clearly define the new garden beds, adding topsoil and grass seed to the walkways. As Spring 2016 rolled around, I would have the new layout intact and be ready to focus on the beds and fencing. 

Season 3

As season three came out of a very cold winter, everything was well on its way. The many soil amendments were starting to yield a healthy loam, the grass seed had taken off to mark clear paths, and my own skills had hopefully gotten better with two seasons of learning.

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Miss Bit keeps an eye on work progress in April 2016 – the ultimate project manager

I still have a lot of work to do on the fencing and landscaping around the space, but that gets better too as I find new inspirations along the way. You might remember the dancing lady that was restored earlier this year and now graces the space. After the perimeter garden fence is complete, electrical and lighting will be installed, and water will be routed for irrigation.
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The vegetable garden, July 2016

Although we had a very prolonged, wet spring, I was finally able to get a few seeds in the ground. Many were new varieties that I had not tried before and some were old favorites that I’ve had great success with during past years. Here are some of my favorite heirloom varieties that you will find in my garden each year:

  • Cherry Belle Radish
  • Maxibel Haricot Vert
  • Straight Eights Cucumber
  • Hale’s Best Muskmelon
  • Lacinato Kale
  • White Acre Peas

With a new kitchen and a flourishing garden, I can’t get enough time to cook and create. Hopefully you can stop by and join me for a fresh garden meal one day soon!

Garden ShedMy garden hub

Miss Bit

Garden Oversight Consultant

Restoring a 19th-Century Garden Statue

With better weather also comes the time to catch up on old projects that got waylaid during winter. That includes going through the masses of antique cast iron lying around.

I admit, I have an issue buying “projects” that may or may not be expeditiously completed. Don’t judge. Perhaps it’s the same trigger that encourages me to buy books that I never read, artwork that I have no wall space for, and a creative vision for more.

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A future project discovered deep inside the smokehouse during a recent spring cleaning

I love the potential of something that could be repaired, “fixed up”, and returned to its former glory. The problem here is that not only do cast iron projects take up space, but they are ridiculously heavy to keep shuffling around. Someone once suggested that I take up painting matchboxes instead. (That person’s name shall remain omitted from this post.)

My most recent project has been a basic restoration of an antique cast-iron statue and pedestal, likely produced in France during the late nineteenth century. The woman (we really need a good name for her), draped in a Greco-Roman style, holds a torch in her left hand and has her right arm raised above her head. She was rescued at auction from a house where she had been left to rust under an overflowing gutter for many years. Her outer coat of paint had been compromised, letting water pool underneath, expediting corrosion. She was not a happy camper.

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Step 1 – Preparation

The first step was to manually remove as much of the outer shell as possible. Being attentive at this stage is important to reduce any risk of major damage or unnecessary pitting to the iron surface. This is one reason that sandblasting isn’t always the first recommendation for this type of project. (People always ask me why I don’t just sandblast the hell out of it.) Oh, and I really didn’t want to spend the fortune that it would have been to sandblast these two pieces.

I had four favorite tools for this and there wasn’t much that I couldn’t do with this combination: a stiff bristle wire brush, some fine steel wool, coarse-grit sandpaper for painted areas, and of course my trusty five-in-one tool. (Everyone should have a good five-in-one tool in their tool belt.)

Step 2 – Prime

After doing my best to clean and prepare the surface, I was able to prime the existing paint and newly exposed cast iron with a stabilizing primer. After testing a few different ones, I really liked the adherence of the Rustoleum Gray Enamel Primer.

I chose the aerosol for this stage of the project, because I wanted good coverage but with minimal pooling in some of the small grooves. There are already several coats of paint, and I didn’t want to obscure the statue’s details any further.

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Step 3 – Top Coat

For the top coat, I utilized an oil-based enamel in white to ensure the best weather protection and long-term adherence. After testing a few different finishes, the flat white was the winner, providing the best coverage and hiding small imperfections in the surface. I utilized the same process for both the pedestal and the statue with excellent results.

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I’m still dealing with a little rust bleeding through on the base of the statue where the corrosion was really bad from years of sitting in a pool of water, but I think that is at least stabilized and better protected at this point. It’s something that I can work on in more detail later.

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Step 4 – Enjoy

Standing about seven feet tall, and god only knows how many pounds, she now graces the north side of the vegetable garden thanks to the muscles of a few good men.

My friend Karen says it looks like she’s dancing – party style. I think that’s a great perspective – the more joy in the garden, the better. Maybe a little garden boogie will help the plants grow!

Bliss is an Old Homestead with a New Kitchen

The feeling of divine satisfaction settles into my bones as I sit here with my computer, writing from my new kitchen island. Cup of coffee in hand, homemade muffins in the oven, and a little music to keep me company. I can’t imagine a better morning. Oh, how I missed this. After a full year of a makeshift kitchen in an upstairs hallway with a single hot plate and microwave, I didn’t realize how much I needed something so simple to feel human again. It’s amazing what new cabinets and a little paint can do!

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The new copper countertop on the kitchen island

Over the past year, I was pushed to the outer boundary of my capacity. I have never felt so destabilized and unsettled. It is in reflection on this past year that I realize the social and interactive importance of our personal and communal spaces. For me, a kitchen is not only an important outlet for my creative expression, but it’s a space where friends and family gather to share stories and provide the collective cheer that we all so desperately need.

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The dark and dreaded hallway kitchen – it can finally be a hallway again

My nineteen year old cousin came to visit from Florida a couple of weeks ago. She was the first weekend house guest since we bought the farm and began restorations 2.5 years ago. It was a push to get everything done before she arrived, but the joy her visit brought to the house was exactly what we needed at just the right time. We spent time sharing recipes, cooking meals, telling stories about our kin folk, and just getting to know each other.

And isn’t that the beauty of these old homesteads? This has been a family home for at least 230 years. I intend to continue that tradition and provide a space that celebrates the joy of sharing good food, drink, and meaningful time with friends and loved ones. What an amazing gift that we live in a time and country where that’s even possible.

It’s going to take some recovery time after a long year of stressful renovations, but I’m loving this place more and more each day. And I’m starting to feel like my self again. It may not be all butterflies and sunshine around here, but it’s a hell of a lot better than another year cooking on a hot plate!

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The driveway is on fire with blooming tiger lilies 

Ducklings

In other news, the baby ducks have hatched! Although we lost a couple to a six-foot black snake that crept its way into the brooder pen (that’s another story), we have two cute little ducklings running around. Their favorite thing to do, besides playing in the water bowl, is to perch on mom’s back while she squeaks at the guineas running by.

Although I wish that we’d had a higher hatch rate, I learned so much going through this first cycle and look forward to another round next year. But for now, I’m looking forward to a renovation break and time to enjoy everything that has been hatching over the past year – feathered and otherwise!

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