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Posts from the ‘Yard’ Category

It’s a tupelo, honey.

We got a tree.


I can hear the naysayers mumbling, “Where I come from, we call that a twig, not a tree.”

But, as they say, the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, and the second best time is now.

After ridding our side yard of the “decorative” stump that loomed over the lawn, we began a protracted search for a replacement tree.  As I do, I developed a long list of mandatory criteria that no tree could ever meet. It needed to live a long time, it needed to look good year round (but especially in the fall), it should be large, but not too large, and it needed to be happy in the heat of central North Carolina summers. We considered and rejected nearly every sort of tree commonly available at the local nursery: crabapple (too messy), maple (too common), cherry (too ephemeral), hawthorn (too thorny), dogwood (too slow-growing), redbud (too short-lived), oak (too big).

At an impasse, we decided to defer our selection until spring, giving us time to brainstorm new options. But, a chance encounter with one of our neighbors, an amateur tree buff, resulted in an unexpectedly perfect suggestion: a tupelo tree. Now, as far as I knew, Tupelo was just a town in Mississippi. Turns out it’s a type of tree too, alternately known as a black gum. And, in case you’re wondering, tupelo honey is honey made by bees collecting nectar from tupelo trees. As I read more about the tree, the more of my requirements it met.

It’s native, growing naturally from Canada to Mexico.

It’s big, but not too big, maxing out at 60 – 80 feet tall and 25 – 35 feet wide.

It has a tidy growth habit with a straight trunk and branches that emerge at ninety degrees from it.

It’s drought-tolerant once established, and can tolerate a range of soil types.

It’s long-lived, averaging 250 years, but specimens 600 years or older have been identified.

And, best of all, tupelos have spectacular bright red fall color, similar to a red maple.

The tree might not look like much now, but in a few decades, I’ m confident our tupelo will be a familiar fixture in our corner of Hillsborough.


When we took ownership of the Ordinary House, among other things, we inherited a very impressive stump. A remnant of a huge elm tree, the stump was a full ten feet tall and topped by a bushy vine which seemed to be the only thing keeping it from rotting to pieces. I’m told that this pairing was intentional yard ornament.  Knowing this, I’m willing to consider that it might have looked good once, but more recently it looked like H-E-double hockey sticks. Worse, the stump was situated directly in the line of sight of cars paused at the stop sign across the street. Everybody who’s driven by our house in recent years was probably as perplexed as we were about this peculiar vegetative arrangement. Not to mention the stump was directly outside the window of our kitchen-to-be.

elm stump

This year when Weezie asked me what I wanted for my birthday the answer was obvious: make that damn stump go away. Several weeks ago a local tree service made quick work of its removal.  There’s a clear view of the east side of the house for the first time in decades.

The unfortunate outcome of cutting down a tall stump is that you’re left with a short stump. But a quick call to the stump grinding man made sure that all evidence of the old elm tree was removed once and for all. It’s one of those easy changes that makes an outsize impact and leaves you wondering why you didn’t do it earlier.

ground stump

The corner of the yard deserves an ornamental tree, so our next challenge will be to make sure we get the right one.  Any suggestions?

A missed American moment

Last weekend, I finally admitted to myself that the foot-tall grass in our lawn was out of hand rather than attractively scruffy. Once you start mowing in North Carolina you don’t quit until late fall, so I push off the first pass until as late in the spring as possible.

When we moved into the Ordinary House, we hired a lawn service. They did a passable job, but their riding mowers left muddy divots in the grass and their schedule was erratic. When I realized that we were paying hundreds of dollars a month for mediocre work that I could do myself, my self-reliant streak kicked in. I dusted off my old push mower and spent hour after hour pushing it across our three-quarter acre lot. The results were good, but the job was a time sink and took my attention away from  more pressing projects, like that kitchen that I’m supposedly building.

This year, I promised myself that I would let my tightwad shield down just long enough to buy an expensive mower. Even so, I resisted that purchase until last weekend, when I walked into Home Depot and saw the model I’d been ogling on super-sale. Half an hour later, I was walking behind it my yard.

Yup, you read that right: walking behind it. I’m sure you’re wondering: 3/4 of an acre and you didn’t buy a riding mower? What kind of American are you?

Problem is, our yard has enough corners, flower beds and other obstacles that I’d spend an hour going behind the riding mower with a push mower. The mower I bought is a 30″ self-propelled push model by Toro, called the Time Master.  It’s  maneuverable enough to do most of the detail work, but has 9″ more deck width than my old mower, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that those extra inches decrease mowing time by nearly 40%.

toro timemaster width

The mower is very heavy, weighing in at nearly 200 pounds, but the self-propelled transmission pulls it at any pace, from a crawl to a trot. The blades are engaged separately from the engine, so you can move a stick or dog toy out of your way without turning the machine completely off.   It’ll bag or mulch or discharge to the side. And although it’s large, the push handle folds up while it’s in storage, so it actually takes up less floor space than the smaller mower.

toro timemaster storage

The Time Master took some getting used to.  It felt cumbersome at first, but after an hour I got the hang of it. Though I admit the idea of a riding mower with a cup holder is appealing, I think this is the right choice for our yard.  The mower does the job relatively quickly, it can be stored in the shed we already have, and we spent far less money than we would have to get a riding model.

Now that I’ve mowed once, it’ll be a weekly chore through October.  Twenty-six weeks of pushing will be the true test of my positive first impressions.


Winter’s last stand

There’s sleet tapping on the windowpanes on March 6. I’ve never known a winter so relentless, and that includes all my years living in Boston and the mountains of southwest Virginia. It seems as though spring will never arrive, but the yard knows better. The land around us has been tended for hundreds of years so there’s nearly always a floral display, even in the depths of winter. I like how a garden acts as a calendar. I know that fall is just around the corner when the spider lilies show their exotic petals, that it’s nearly Halloween when the pink camellia blooms, and that the dog days of summer have arrived when the dahlias on the corner are flush with flowers. But it’s the early springtime show that is particularly exciting to me, as a harbinger of longer, warmer days and a return to outdoor living.

At the Ordinary House, the surest sign of impending spring is the purple carpet formed by the crocuses (croci?) that trace the banks of the stream at the bottom of the yard.

crocus carpet

Their fleeting display is a welcome reassurance that we’ve nearly made our way through winter.


The droopy blooms of the hellebores are out, slumping as if they too are tired of the never ending cold.


And, of course, ever eager daffodils are popping up here and there. They appear out of nowhere when we get brief spurts of warmth and seem to pause when temperatures cool again.

There’s hope for next year: NOAA just issued an El Nino warning, which could portend a warmer winter for us East Coasters – but not before giving us plenty of opportunities to complain about heat and rain this summer.

Eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

In architecture school, I shied away from the professors who had short careers in the real world before retreating into academia. I was born into a family of self-sufficient builders and engineers, so I’ve long been wary of anyone who lacked the resourcefulness to translate their book learnin’ into day-to-day pragmatism. Now that I’m a registered architect with more than a decade of experience, I continue to believe that there’s no substitute for real world experience. I’ve learned more about building and designing while renovating my own houses than I have from everything else I’ve done in my career.  Until you’ve nailed together a stud wall or run a new electrical circuit, it’s hard to really appreciate what it takes to build something.

Today, I’m getting a fresh lesson in the realities of renovation. I guide clients through this process every day, so it’s easy to get desensitized to the stress of working on an old house. Unless your pot of gold is limitless, work on existing buildings is never dull.  Projects on the Ordinary House keep me in touch with the gut punches that renovation delivers regularly. It’s the best continuing education I could ask for.

Since last week, we’ve hired a plumber (really) and today a small crew of three guys got started. Two hours into the work day, my phone rang and Matt, the lead plumber, delivered this news: “Man, it looks like the last plumber in here used a chainsaw on your floor joists.”

I had two immediate reactions:

1) Thank you, Matt, for stopping work and picking up the phone. Anxious for a paycheck, many contractors would have gone ahead and done their own hack job to put themselves one step closer to pay day.

2) FML. Somebody remind me again why I enjoy this?

random plumbing

We’ve set up a meeting tomorrow with a county building inspector to get input on what he’ll pass on inspection. Loaded with that information, we’ll develop a plan to reinforce the floor joists and keep the plumbers moving. Until then, I suppose we’ll just have to get used to the toilet sitting in the upstairs hall.

toilet in hall

Pretty ordinary #010

In a remote corner of our yard, there’s an unassuming little tree that’s towered over by its neighbors. Most of the year it sits overlooked, blending into the lush green surroundings.

But, after a few friendly nudges from Jack Frost, the tree’s leaves turn a rich ruby hue, revealing it as a Japanese Maple. For the past several weeks, it’s taken center stage as the trees around it drop their leaves and go dormant for the winter.

japanese maple

Bugs behaving badly

If there’s one thing we don’t lack for here at the Ordinary House, it’s critters. Two of them, Meg and Louis, are invited guests. But then there are the squirrels and deer and skinks and snakes and wasps and chimney swifts – all uninvited and badly behaved. Apparently the local fauna enjoys east Hillsborough as much as we do. And now we’ve got another visitor staking a claim to this side of the ‘hood.

For the past several weeks, the stone walk from the driveway to the back door has become increasingly sticky. Tree sap, I figured. But the sticky stones got so tacky that our shoes were making a ripping sound with each footstep. Looking for the source of the gummy gunk, I peered upward and discovered that the trees above the walk are blanketed with these little buggers:

whiteflies on leaves

If I was a betting man, I’d say we’ve got whiteflies.  And they’re dripping a sea of honeydew, a word that I formerly associated with tasty white melons, not insect excretion. The stuff is seriously sugary, but might be tolerable if it didn’t provide a breeding ground for black soot mold, a layer of which now coats every plant and horizontal surface of our side yard.

black soot mold plant

That newly painted white fence? The top rail is nearly black in some spots.

black soot mold

I’m hoping that the cool fall nights will put a damper on the whiteflies’ goo-fest.  Until then, any tips for removing soot mold or preventing the flies from returning next year?

Still House Lott lockdown

When the weather is nice, we like to let the pups spend long hours outdoors where Louis shreds the contents of the recycling bin and Meg skulks around wondering why nature doesn’t have couches. Our newly painted fence keeps them safely contained in the yard, but both Weezie and I worry about inattentive visitors not fully latching the gate and providing an escape route for puttering pooches. To allay these concerns, I ventured onto the Interwebs in search of a stout, lockable gate latch, preferably operated with a key to avoid the hassle of a padlock.

Enter the Iron Aldrop Latch from Van Dyke’s Restorers:

iron aldrop latch

This thing looks like it belongs on the front door of Neuschwanstein: simple, no-nonense, and more than a little medieval. Best part? The keys are skeleton keys. Instant keyring gravitas.

Installation began by carefully laying out the latch mounting loops and hasp locking bar.

fence latch layout

Before installing the second mounting loop, I made sure that the latch rod was level and moved freely.

fence latch level

Once the latch was attached to the pickets, I closed the gate and marked the spot where the rod hits the fence post. I drilled a slightly oversized hole into the fence post to accept the rod in the closed position, using a scrap piece of plywood to keep the drill bit centered.

drill jig

Finally, I inserted a short length of copper tubing to protect the hole from weather and wear.

iron aldrop latch

The latch locks securely, with a satisfying click. Built with few moving parts and solid components, I expect it to keep our menagerie safe for many years to come.

Insect elixir

I got some nice feedback about the photo I posted on July 4th of some beautiful yellow flowers growing in our backyard.  Since then, the blooms have multiplied and are apparently full of the butterfly equivalent of crack:

butterfly yellow flower

All day every day butterflies (and bees and hummingbirds) swarm around the prolific yellow blooms.

insect elixir

I’ve asked several people what sort of plant this is.  The best guesses so far have been swamp daisies or some sort of sunflower.  But neither of those seems exactly right, at least based on my amateur Google research.  Each stalk is around eight feet tall, with large, jagged leaves that emerge from its sides.  For most of its growth cycle, it looks like a weed on ‘roids.  The flowers are daisy-like with numerous yellow petals around a dark orange center.  It’s clearly a species that thrives in full sun.  Last year the blooms weren’t nearly as impressive, but have improved since I removed the walnut saplings that surrounded it.

Can anybody ID this plant?

If it ain’t rodents, it’s ruminants.

Recently, perfectly elliptical patterns of trampled vegetation began appearing in our lawn. It was like a midget UFO was using our yard as its personal landing spot. But, the true culprit was revealed when I pulled into the driveway one evening and a startled deer fawn leaped from the underbrush and sprinted for cover. Unable to jump any of our fences, the fawn paced the perimeter of the yard until its mother appeared at dusk, taking cautious glances at her offspring from the shelter of the neighbors’ trees. I propped a gate open, and a few hours later the family was gone.

I figured that the incident would cause the animals to steer clear of our yard for awhile. But this weekend, I was outside one afternoon and saw the same fawn quietly lounging by the fence in the front yard.

deer fawn at fence

Mom was nowhere to be found. I was a bit perplexed by this behavior until a little Google-ing taught me that deer daycare consists of parking your kid somewhere (anywhere will work, apparently, which explains the flat spots in the lawn), giving them the “stay put” signal, and literally high-tailing it to the nearest patch of woods.

Perhaps deer like the adrenaline rush of being discovered because the fawn and its posse have visited our yard several more times over the past week.  And they made it clear why deer fencing is so tall.  In the picture below, I caught one of the animals mid-flight, effortlessly leaping a retaining wall from several yards away.

leaping ruminant

Capable critters, yes. Smart? Certainly not.

At least they don’t try to live in your attic.