Tag Archives: house and garden

one year in 90 seconds

Happy New Year!

Last year I took a photo out the back window every day. Yesterday I took the last one. They’re a bit dull to look at on the Shuttercal site so rolled them all into this video. Watch for the sap bucket in March!

plumbing woes

Our main drain was blocked. It was an old clay pipe and it broke and we didn’t know. It had been blocked for a while causing the sinks and toilet and dishwasher and bathtub to drain very slowly. My response to this was to flush an obscene amount of water down the drains in an attempt to clear some blockage. Bad idea. Then, when emptying the bathtub during a torrential downpour brought water up through the drain in the basement, we finally called a plumber. It was not an easy fix:

For several days these guys dug a 13-foot hole in our front yard to get to the broken section of pipe. In the meantime we had to try not to send any water down the drain since it would only seep out into the growing hole. The timing was impeccable: my in-laws were visiting from Sri Lanka and my own mother arrived for a visit bringing the population of our four-person house up to seven for the duration of the plumbing problem.

I felt some mild panic. Then I rallied: it’s like camping. I love camping! I can use very little water. I can bathe my children in a bucket (or, you know, not bathe them). I can wash dishes in an inch of water and pour the dishwater on the garden instead of letting it go down the drain. My mom and I talked ourselves into the fun of camping at home and making do and getting by. We filled a bunch of pots and jugs for when the supply had to be turned off. We put basins in both the sinks and a bucket in the shower so we could carry used water out and pour it directly down the sewer. I did laundry at the neighbour’s.

As for my in-laws, this is how they handled the crisis:

Me: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We can’t pour water down the drain until the pipe is fixed. It’s going to take a few days.”

Them: “Ok.”

Didn’t faze them a bit. Infrastructure in their neighbourhood in Colombo isn’t hidden away. There are visible drains that take water out of the houses. There are tanks on top of the roofs that hold reserve water for when the municipal supply wavers. They turn the pump on to fill the tank and turn it off again when it’s full.

The Canadian-born folks in the house had to pause and think about where the water comes from and where it goes and how to cope when the circuit is broken. For the Sri Lankans? No biggie.

cosmos update

Two summers ago the kids sprinkled cosmos seeds in cracks all around the back alley. This year we remembered to weed out other things and water the little seedlings. Now look:

We feel like The Lupin Lady; doing something to make the world more beautiful.

planting weekend

The May long weekend is planting time. I made three vegetable planter boxes (single-handedly – literally). Malli helped me fill them with dirt and both kids helped me plant this year’s crop: kale, chard, lettuce, peas, beans, other beans, tomatoes (upside-down and right-side-up), basil and parsley. And this year we’re staying in town so we should be able to reap what we sowed.

construction site:

heavy lifting:

soil prep:


upside-down tomatoes and basil (with eggshells to foil the slugs):

gardening lessons

It’s harvest season. The end of gardening. My first foray into growing food was a mixed success. I definitely started out with too many plants. Things grew. There were winners and there were losers. The zucchini never produced fruit. Flowers yes, but no fruit. I mentioned this to my neighbour who nodded knowingly. “Gay zucchini,” she said. Also they crowded out the broccoli which grew at odd angles to reach the sun, crowding out the carrots. The carrots were good but they were small. Lesson: spread stuff out. Buy zucchini at the store or offer to take some off the hands of successful zucchini growers who are always looking to unload a squash or two.

The kale and chard worked. Lesson: repeat next year.

The parsley worked too. Lesson: don’t plant parsley. You never eat it.

The upside-down tomatoes kind of worked. They grew well and produced fruit but they suffered in the heat of the summer and weren’t very abundant. Lesson: if you want lots of tomatoes, don’t leave town for six weeks during the hottest summer on record.

The basil was good too. It needed eggshells around the base of each plant to keep the slugs off. I have a few jars of frozen pesto to show for this year’s crop. I can maybe get one more jar out of what’s left. Lesson: Put the eggshells on earlier. Pick and make into pesto more frequently.

The pole beans completely crowded out the sugar snap peas and then, like something out of Day of the Triffids, proceeded to wind their way up the flowering almond tree. I’m still picking beans out of the tree. At least the silly flowering almond is proving useful. Lesson: plant pole beans next to really tall poles. It’s right there in the name. It should have been obvious.

And that sums up gardening 2010. There were more failures than successes in this year’s garden. But I still rounded out plenty of dinners with a walk to the front yard rather than a walk to the grocery store so it was worth it.

a sad move

Our next door neighbours are moving. The other half of our semi-detached house will soon have strangers in it. I am, perhaps, more upset by this than the situation really calls for. Our neighbours are only moving up the street. They will be close by, but they won’t be next door and they will no longer back onto our little alley.

A few years ago, my neighbour E. handed two swings over the fence and said we should put them up in our maple tree since they had nowhere to hang them.

Later we cut a little hole in the chain-link fence between the yards so that her then-two and five-year old boys could come over and swing. Soon, the hole grew into a child-sized doorway, complete with a little gate. Every morning I’d come down and put the kettle on and glance out to see two blond boys lounging on the hammock-swing munching on toast or pulling with all their little might to swing and kick ever-higher branches. If the neighbours’ garage door was open, kids would trickle in from the alley and there would be a before-school gathering of five, six and seven-year olds in our backyard. They provided lovely early morning entertainment for me, up early with a baby or chasing a purse-toting toddler.

The gate broke apart but the hole in the fence remains. It is still a well-used portal between the backyards and also serves as a monkey bar. I’ve gotten so used to this arrangement that I don’t think of our backyard as small. Practically-speaking, it’s twice as wide.

There are other advantages. E. could hear when I was starting to lose it with my kids. Sometimes it’s handy to know you have witnesses. I never bothered to buy garden clippers because there are some readily available next door. I shovel their steps in the winter. They mow our front lawn in the summer. It worked. When I have to go pick up Akka from school and Malli doesn’t want to come, I just poke my head in next door to see if someone is there to keep an eye on him for ten minutes. Many times E. has called to check that we’re home before leaving her boys home ‘alone’ for a little while. We leave the back doors open, I check on them once or twice, they have our phone number, and they know where to find us if they need us.

Having another family next door, with a mom who is around during the day, has been tremendously valuable. I never knew how much I’d need them. These back-room domestic support systems keep mothers sane. They stand in for the villages that it takes to raise a child. My children’s grandparents live in Colombo, Ottawa and Vancouver. Their aunts and uncles and cousins live in London, Gatineau and Jakarta. It’s friends and neighbours who help on a daily basis – who send over extra dinner and let your sick kid sleep on their couch. They’ll pick up your mail and water your plants (for us) or feed the cat, gerbils and snake (for them) when you’re out of town. They’ll notice when your kid is standing out on the sidewalk or a bike is left under a car’s back tire.

E. ruined a perfectly good party by telling me they were moving. The two of us spent the rest of the evening weeping on the front porch. I started in Denial, moved quickly through Anger (jerks) to Bargaining (you can renovate! don’t move! build a third floor! re-build the sunroom!) to Depression (sadness, really, with thoughts of sabotage such as releasing mice just prior to the open house), and I’m working on Acceptance. I’ve given up the role of ‘jilted neighbour’ and am trying to embrace ‘supportive friend’. I’m helping them fluff the house. Staging it for re-sale. I lent them some wicker baskets (“baskets can be your best asset” says the fluffing manual) and helped pick out accent cushions (“bright and cheerful pieces throughout” says the fluffing manual). K. put a characteristic Marxist spin on the process by observing that we are working to convert use value into exchange value.

I can’t say that I’ll miss these four people because they’re really only moving a block away. But I will miss having these four people living exactly where they are now. I’m sure the new neighbours will be friendly but what are the chances that they’ll be a family, with kids close in age to mine, with a parent home during the day, with no sense of privacy and a good collection of garden tools?

growing food

I’ve finally planted vegetables! I’ve wanted to create a vegetable garden ever since we moved in. Every spring there was some reason why I couldn’t do it:

  • 2005: got the house in late May, had a baby in June.
  • 2006: away in Sri Lanka, house rented out.
  • 2007: the new baby is four months old, K is in Sri Lanka, and we’re planning a renovation.
  • 2008: working full-time, kids in daycare, busy coming to the realization that I should leave work.
  • 2009: away in Berlin, house rented out.
  • 2010: did it!

I bought too many plants. Perhaps next year I will graduate to growing from seed but this year I bought seedlings to plant directly outside. Also, as a newbie, I didn’t realize that one little dish actually contains four plants. So when I thought I bought one broccoli plant, I bought four. And four times as many kale plants as I’d planned. Ditto the carrots, zucchini, chard, peas and beans. Never mind, the more the merrier.

First step was to prune the hell out of the flowering almond tree in the front. It’s beautiful for about a week each May, otherwise it’s pokey and sends up very persistent shoots all over the garden. And it was shading my future vegetable garden patch. So it got a very severe haircut.

Next I dug up all the plants. Some had been planted  intentionally (by the house’s previous owners) but most were opportunistic. Out they came. I lined the edge with bricks, spread some compost, nursed my sore muscles, and sat back to figure out how to get this many vegetable plants:

…into this much space:

This is how it turned out:

However, there were many little plants left over. And I like kale so I set about finding spots for them all. I searched for “small plot gardening” and soon found instructions and photos of upside-down tomato plants. Brilliant! There are two big hooks nailed into the fence in the back yard. I can’t get them out. But now I can use them! I got some empty buckets from the bulk food store and Malli and I turned them into tomato planters. I cut holes in the bottoms, threaded the wee plant through the hole and filled the bucket with dirt:

Next I scrounged around for empty pots, nailed a trellis to the wall, and turned a sunny spot between our house and our neighbour’s into a garden. These are beans, kale, spinach and basil:

I buried a broken pot in the backyard wood chips and planted some snow peas. These little guys are already winding their way around the strings:

Still a few plants to go. I put the last spinach and the last chard in the top of the upside-down tomatoes and set the two remaining zucchini plants on the sidewalk with a sign imploring passers-by to help them find some soil in which to spread out. They were gone within half an hour.

It’s hard to stop. Every bucket and sunny spot I see looks like a potential planting spot. The kids have caught the farming bug and have ‘planted’ an assortment of sticks and shovels out back. We’ll start watering them from our rain barrel and see what comes up.

getting it done

Today was one of those good days where you feel like a few things actually got done. With Akka at school and Malli occupied, I, for the first time ever, cleaned under the fridge. This is what I found (minus the dust and grime):


Moving the fridge left strange yellow streaks on the floor until I discovered the yellow crayon bit and pried it out from under one of the fridge feet. Sheesh.

Once Akka was home, we dug into pumpkin carving. I asked the kids draw what they wanted on the pumpkins and I would carve them out. Akka is sufficiently indoctrinated with Halloween tradition to know to draw a face. Malli not so much.



Malli’s creative vision for his pumpkin was a bit beyond my carving skills (my thumb has stopped bleeding, thanks for asking) so we compromized on two eyes and a mouth. He went to town with the butter knife, significantly enlarging one eye:


Then we had to turn off all the lights and close all the blinds for a test-lighting since waiting for the sun to go down was going to take way too long.


Unrelated to Halloween but related to getting-it-done: scrap metal collectors finally came by to collect our old garage door and all the leftover siding from the garage construction. And, the new garage door arrived and was installed allowing me to post the long-awaited Glorious, complete “after” shot (alley side):


Here’s a refresher:





after (garden side):


Done! I’m holding myself back from installing shelves and hooks and moving all the crap from the basement out there. Mostly because I have two rattlesnake costumes hanging over me but also because of some building inspection uncertainties. Good days where you feel like a few things actually got done still end with to-do lists.

new garage, part one

Over the past month we’ve been working (mostly mentally and emotionally, with a touch of physically) on getting a new garage. The lovely little green garage that came with the house was quaint and picturesque but it was also rotten, treacherous, and didn’t allow K. to stand upright or fully open our car doors. I have several rips in the back of my winter coat from snagging it on nails as I bent through a half-opened door to drag a sleeping child out of a rapidly cooling car. The garage had to go.

Before (I was pruning. That’s why I’m in the tree):


I took care of the demolition. It was slow and methodical. While the kids slept or played at a safe distance, I carefully dismantled plywood sheathing and bone-dry planks and sodden mouldy roofing. I piled all the debris nail-side down. I cleaned up the one window pane that shattered.


Then, one weekend, we invited friends and neighbours over for the final tear-down. They were less methodical but rather more effective:



Last view of old garage:


Blank slate:


Next steps:  excavation, gravel, building forms, pouring concrete:






Skate park!


From this point on it’s brother-in-law MC on the job. Framing walls:IMG_6852

Attaching tin siding:


Side walls up:


Drill…. Beer….


Raising the front wall:



Cheering section:


Looking like a garage! This is the work to date. Glorious, complete “after” shot coming soon.


chef’n it up

Culinary urges have taken hold. Since I’m not growing food this year, I’m trying to make fresh in-season food to eat and possibly to store. I came home with two big bunches of basil from the farmer’s market and prepared my first-ever batch of pesto. It’s delicious because parmesan cheese may be the most plentiful ingredient.


Ready for the freezer:


Kale chips are a new favourite around here. Sprinkle kale leaves with oil and salt and bake for 8 or 10 minutes until crispy.



And just in case all the deliciousness was going to my head, full disclosure requires that I admit that my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies continue to fail by smearing themselves all over the pan and turning themselves into granola bars.