Category Archives: Home Improvement

The Garden

Raspberries planterI am married to an artist.  She paints, she writes (lately, haiku), is doing lots of cooking with our new kitchen, and she gardens.  It’s spring, so a lot of our effort is going into the garden. I willingly garden, but it is mostly the labor part. I dig, I built a cold frame and re-glazed it, I water and help plant.  I do not, however decide what to plant or where.  I am getting better at pruning with my left-handed Felco Pruner.  I mow, compost, rake, clean up, water, and haul.

We are landscaping in back, so lots of things are changing.  We have a nice new patio with a pergola.  The iris are already in along the fence and in the alley just outside.

The project this week is raspberries.  We had a 15 foot long cedar planter built just in front of the big blank slab of a garage wall that is YELLOW.  I prepared the planter soil with compost made from last falls leaves and a lot of coffee grounds from the coffee shops.  The raspberries will get fairly high and will break up that expanse of garage.  We were planning to have the raspberries planted by the pros but Carol got a call from a woman she met at a class offering free raspberries.



We jumped in my pickup and went over to their garden in what used to be a run-down neighborhood between I-25 and Highlands.  It is being transformed with new construction, but still retains some of the flavor of what it used to be.  We dug up about fifteen plants, brought them home and planted them. They were bare root, so some of them are looking pretty droopy, but I think they will make it.  My job is to set some eight foot cedar posts and run wires between them to support the raspberry canes.  The bushes can get about six to eight feet tall.  I can’t wait to have fresh raspberries in my muffins.

Our perennials are doing fine.  We were a bit worried after that early hard freeze we had last fall.  Even Carol’s attempt to clone the Pacific Northwest with a salal plant and some azaleas survived.  There is a deciduous bush next to the front door that is supposed to be evergreen that lost all its leaves.    It has lots of little buds and a few leaves, so I think it will be all right.

One of the things we are getting done in front is putting big rocks and some perennials on the slope from the lawn down to the sidewalk.  I am not getting any stronger, and that slope is hard to mow.  It also gets dry in summer, as it faces west.

Our Little Free Library is up and running. It is one of the features on the slope.  It is so much fun going out to check the books.  We get quite a bit of business, but no problem, because people keep bringing us books.  It’s painful, but I am culling some of my books.  It seems like some of my soul goes with them.  I hope they will enrich the soul of their next owner. It is good, life as a householder.

Little Free Library

Little Free Library

Little Free Library

Have you seen them?  These cute and brightly painted little houses are to be found in front yards all over town.  Bigger than a birdhouse, but much too small for a child’s playhouse, Little Free Libraries are popping up everywhere.  In fact, pretty soon Bill and I are going to have one in our front yard too!

Can you tell that I am excited?  I first ran across the Little Free Library concept on line sometime last fall.  As soon as I read about them, I knew I had to have one.  A career as a librarian always came up on the Strong Vocational Interest test when I was in school, and now I am finally going to be one.

LFL1 Right now our Little Free Library is sitting on a table in our new garage waiting for the final coats of bright red paint and protective glaze.  While the snow flies, it is too cold to paint.  Instead, I turn to my advance review copy of The Little Free Library Book by Margaret Aldrich (Coffee House Press, 2015).

If I can’t paint, I can read about other LFL librarians around the world who are finding so many pleasures in establishing small colorful libraries and sharing a love of books and reading with friends, neighbors and passing strangers.  I’ve learned that I wouldn’t have a chance to join this global community if not for Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin who built the first library in 2009 as a memorial to his book loving mother.  His library is No. 1.  Ours, received in January, 2015, is No. 21,265.

My favorite thing about this book is the many photographs of LFLs set up along city streets, suburban lawns and country roads from Bellingham to Bogota and other unexpected places around the world.  Many are elaborately decorated and embellished, but others are created out of found objects like discarded kitchen cabinets and even old microwaves.

Another exciting thing about the libraries is their power to build community.  Some librarians (they are called “stewards”) comment that they meet more people in a week since their library went up than they have met since they moved in to their neighborhood.   A big part of the fun is seeing who stops to poke through the books, which of the books are taken and what new books appear.

The Little Free Library Book contains suggestions for inviting others participation in library activities from a grand opening ceremony to organizing bike trips to visit other libraries nearby.  One steward met a family who had organized their vacation to visit LFL’s in distant communities.  What about making room for the distribution of original writing or setting up a small seed sharing project?

LFL2The Little Free Library Book offers many practical suggestions from how to install a counter to track visits to your library to how to deal with books that no one takes out or how to respond to problems that might come up with neighbors or city authorities.  While problems have arisen in some places, mostly the reception is very positive.  The Los Angeles Police Department has gone so far as to install LFL’s at their stations to encourage better community relations.

You might want to buy your LFL from the website   or, if you want to build your own, there are detailed plans to be found in The Little Free Library Book.  You can even find information on knitting your library a custom designed sweater!

By now you can tell that the LFL community is a zany and wildly creative bunch.  The Little Free Library Book is an exciting report filled with beautiful photos, great stories and inspiring ideas.  It’s worth a read even if you don’t want your own library.  But beware.  If you don’t want one now, you will after reading this book.  Look for it in April, 2015.  You can look for my library then too.

This is a guest post.  My wife Carol wrote it.  I am very much involved in the project, but Carol won’t let me paint.


Holiday Decorations


?????????? Carol and I have always been ambivalent about elaborate holiday decorations.  We have had natural trees, artificial trees (boo), and now a little painted plywood tree made by a former coworker.  Decorations go on the mantel; there are colorful magnetic ornaments on the refrigerator door, a Santa on the stand in the foyer, and a Menorah in the front window.


Holiday Lights

Holiday Lights

The big one is the 20 foot tall tree in front of the house.   A few years ago something inspired me to light the tree.  This entailed quite a project.  The tree is between the street and the sidewalk, so I had to tunnel under the sidewalk to install a two inch pipe for the electric cord.  We didn’t want a cord tripping people on the sidewalk.  I dug, I pounded, tried a water jet,and dug some more.


The pipe is in, is capped and doesn’t show most of the year.  After Thanksgiving I run a long extension cord from the tree, throughout the pipe, and up to the outlet on the side of the house. We decided to be old fashioned and use large colored bulbs rather than the mini lights popular today.  Seven strings of lights for that big tree.


Next comes the hard part, getting those lights up.  We have a big lighted star on top.  Several seasons of trying methods have come up with the solution of putting the star on a stick and bungeeing it to the trunk.  The problem is getting it up there without killing myself.  That tree is TALL.  I have wobbled on the top step of my eight foot stepladder, tried to place it with the long hooked pole I use for hanging the light strings, and prayed, while Carol is on the ground crying and wailing.


This year I drug out the 20 foot extension ladder after deciding my life was worth breaking a few branches on the tree.  It turns out there is a sturdy side branch in just the right place to support the ladder.  I firmly believe I have a guardian angel.  Without that angel I would be dead many times over.


Menorah and TreeWith the star up, is is just the matter of winding those strings of lights around the tree.  Carol holds the string, and I put a kink in my neck placing the wires around the tree.  The whole process took three hours this year, and I am still alive.  The timer lights the tree from 4:00 PM to about 10:30 PM.


More neighbors on our block have lights, and it is festive out there in the evening.


Happy Holidays!  Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All!

New Garage

New Garage

New Garage

Our new garage is finished.  The old one car garage was designed for a 1936 Ford.  We never parked a car there.  The new one is 22’ by 20’ and will just barely hold both cars.  There is also room for stuff.  It is YELLOW.

Solar panels will be on the garage roof, so it was built with rafters instead of trusses to give a better angle for the panels.  There is storage space in the rafter area for things we don’t use very often.  The fencing is up, and I spread five cubic yards of dirt in the low spot where our patio is going.



The next step is landscaping.  We hear that landscapers are hard to get, so we will see.  We hope to have the entire project finished this year.

Home Improvement 2014

Old Garage

Old Garage

We are adding a two car garage and solar electricity to our 1937 vintage house.  We thought it would be a fairly straightforward project, but it is not working out that way.  We had a brick one car garage, an ugly carport, and a parking pad, all on the alley.

Step one, I mangled the sprinkling system in an attempt to move it out of the way of the larger garage.  It cost $140.00 to get that fixed after a three week wait, then the concrete form setters drove their stakes through one of the lines.  Ed, our contractor and a great guy, replied to my email with “oops, sorry”.  Of course, I found the leak while watering the lawn and garden just before two big thunderstorms.

The main problem is delay.  We waited two weeks on the demolition contractor.  We saved 800 bricks from the garage for walks and a patio.  The demo contractor recycles bricks, so saving those bricks cost us $300.

We waited another week for tree removal, than another week to get the tree stumps ground.  After another wait, the concrete contractor showed up to start setting forms.  They had to chop out two stumps.  The first forms they set were too close to the alley.  They had to take them out anyway to bring in road base (50% gravel, 50% dirt).  That entire process took two more weeks.  Yesterday, they poured the concrete.  The evening rain was perfect, cooling the concrete as it cured.

All the delays are part of any construction project these days.  The recession of 2008 put a lot of construction people out of business.  Now the economy is back, but the companies are not.  Those in business are overbooked and having trouble getting skilled workers.  None of the subcontractors’ workers have English as their first language.  They are all good guys, hard-working and fun to be around.  I provided some cervezas as they finished the day.  One cause of the labor shortage is the oil boom in North Dakota.  Natives up there used to say that the climate kept the riff-raff out.  Lots of riff-raff up there now.  Lots of money as well.  People go where the work and good money are.

Ed is going to do the fencing, which is a good thing as I called three fence contractors and only one returned the call.  We called three solar contractors, got responses from all three, but one never submitted a bid.

New Garage Concrete

New Garage Concrete

The garage should go up starting next week.  Many decisions to make.  Doors, lighting, roofing color, whether to replace the roofing on the sunroom where more solar panels are going, what kind of gate latches, finding a hardscape contractor (I was going to do it myself, but decided I am too old) paint colors, on and on.

In addition, we added painting the north gable on the house to the project.  I got up there to scrape the old paint.  The trim on the bottom of the siding and the bottom board of the siding are rotten.  Another task and some more expense.

The next door neighbors are learning about home improvement as well.  They decided to replace the roof themselves.  Mom, dad, and kid brother came from Omaha last week to help.  five people, fairly skilled, worked Friday through Monday and didn’t finish.  Mom and kid brother had to go back to Omaha, wife went to work.  Dad and husband worked Tuesday, Dad on Wednesday.  Thursday morning Dad worked two hours and left for Omaha to deal with the water in the attic and basement from the big storm there.   The roof is about 95% finished.  They will finish this weekend and have a nice roof with new skylights.

A lot of this story is about things that are fairly normal for any project, but the delays are somewhat unusual.  We did the kitchen last year with little delay as it went along.  When it is finished, this year’s project will make our little nest more livable and more fun.  I don’t call the process itself much fun.



Solar Panels

Solar Panels

Carol and I are concentrating on how we use energy.  Watching “Cosmos” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointing to the sun and saying, “It’s Free!” is partly responsible.  I did a lot of research for my talk on Front Range Colorado flooding.  One conclusion I reached is that the climate change we are now experiencing will lead to more floods.

Releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere is setting up a worldwide crisis of unparalleled magnitude.  Drought, wildfires, floods, sea level rise, and pollution will affect millions worldwide.  The environmental changes have already increased political instability. Syria and sub-Saharan Africa are cases in point.

Here in the U.S., rhetoric and denial are the most visible response to the looming disasters.  Those who make money from fossil energy deny the problem and buy inaction in Congress.  Public utilities seem to be much more interested in selling gas and power produced from coal and gas than switching to renewables.  Wind farms are on the increase and more commercial solar power installations are being built, but the pace is fairly slow.

Germany is a leader in switching to renewables, but recent stories that over 70 percent of production is from renewables is exaggerated.  The fact is that their wind and solar production is increasing, while coal use is declining.  China is starting to move to renewables, but is the world leader in coal use, and coal production is increasing.  In China, 66% of their power comes from coal compared to 49% in the U.S.  The switch to gas from coal is on, driven by cheaper gas (from fracking) and the high cost of coal plant pollution controls.  Burning gas has about half the carbon footprint of coal, but it is still burning huge amounts of carbon sequestered millions of years ago.

Worldwide people and governments are starting to respond to the dangers of fossil fuel generated climate change, but slowly.  So what are we to do?  Join the grassroots green energy movement.  People use all this energy, so people have to use less.  Less gasoline, less natural gas, less electricity, and most of all, less coal.

So what is a couple from Denver to do?  We aren’t much for marching in the streets or being rabid environmentalists, but we want to do our part.  Activism begins at home.  In our case, home is a brick bungalow built in 1937, when builders were not concerned with energy efficiency.  The main thing builders did in the 1930’s did was build smaller houses.  Ours has 830 square feet on the main floor.  It is a far cry from the 2400 square foot houses that are today’s norm.

We did add a 400 square foot sunroom that we can close off from the rest of the house.  In the winter, it is at 40 degrees, and an exhaust fan pulls cool air from the basement in summer.  We have a modern high efficiency furnace and water heater.  We have increased the attic insulation twice, first to R36, then to R50.  The original steel casement windows are terrible for leaking cold air in winter, and hot air in summer.  We have historical designation on the house which means keeping those windows, but we installed inside storm windows that stop those wintry breezes.

Carol forces me to tolerate 68 degrees in winter and 78 degrees in summer.  That mainly means either more or less clothes depending on the season.  At night the programmable thermostat is set for 56 degrees, but the house seldom cools off that much.  I did break down and get some fleece lined slippers instead of my beloved L.L. Bean moccasins.  The basement, with my man cave, gets cold.  I guiltily run an electric heater.  Someday we will insulate those cold basement walls.

When we increased the attic insulation the first time we also put in attic ventilation.  We had rooftop vents installed and put a large vent in the north gable to introduce cooler outside air.  When we re-roof we will add more vents.  Prior to that, the only ventilation was a small vent over the entryway.  It sure did get hot up there.

The air conditioner has a device provided by our electric utility that runs it less often during periods of high demand for power on hot days.  To reduce air conditioner use we open the house up in the evening and run fans to exhaust hot air and bring in cooler outside air.  Denver averages a thirty degree difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures.  Texans, eat your hearts out.  When we have to have a new roof in the next few years we will add an attic fan.  They are noisy, but they exhaust hot air in the house and cool the attic.

The big thing we are doing now is adding solar electricity with our new garage.  We have needed a garage for some time.  We have never been able to park a car in the old one, designed for a 1937 Ford.  My shop area, the gardening stuff, until recently my motorcycle, and the bicycles filled it up.  Our block has an alley, which is a crime conduit.  We have had several break-ins, and want our cars inside.

The solar panels will go on the garage and sunroom roofs.  When we replace the roof on the older part of the house, we will add enough panels to produce all the power we need.  We will be at about 80% with the house and sunroom panels.

So we are slowly going green.  It is possible for individuals to make a difference.  If more of us do it, it will pressure governments and the utility companies to get serious about energy.  It will take grass roots action to make it happen.  Boulder, Colorado is threatening to take over Xcel energy’s infrastructure in their city.  That is a message to the utility companies that they have to get serious about renewable energy or lose their customers city by city.  I am hopeful that meaningful change is going to happen.  I don’t think it is enough to stop some of the climate changes we are seeing, but we are slowly starting to try living with our planet, not exploit it to our extinction.