March 28, 2015

A Fresh Front Step

Good day folks!
     I have been busy the last couple of weeks, taking a little break from working on my next book, Whetstone, to get outside in the somewhat warmer weather. All through the hard, and unusually cold winter this year, I have been planning and plotting my spring projects. Last spring I put in my wonderful champagne tub and I enjoyed it immensely through the heat of the summer. After a hot morning of gardening a plunge in that big tub was a thrilling experience. When I wasn't dunking in it, the sound of the little fairy fountain splashing the fresh water was a cooling treat in itself. I had also planted several new hydrangeas, a climbing rose and a lovely butterfly bush. The bush went wild and grew like a weed, attracting many pretty butterflies. I can hardly wait to see what it will do this summer. Alas, it was a bad hydrangea year last season and even my huge established bushes did not bear a single bloom. I'm hoping for a better show this time around. As for the climbing rose, well, it did grow up the side of the garage but it did not bloom at all. It was its first year, so that may be the reason. I will keep a close eye on it this summer. I fear it is not getting enough sun where I planted it. I'll make a decision to move it or not before the fall.
      I also got a moon flower plant from my neighbor, in a pretty wine color. I have never before grown one. They always remind me of the Star Trek episode, "This Side of Paradise", where flowers pollinated everyone with spores that made them feel romantic. Since Leonard Nimoy recently passed away, I'll think of him this year when the flowers bloom. When I got the plant from my neighbor, and transplanted it, it had a couple of big flowers, which died the following day, but it did sprout fresh leaves before winter set in and I am looking forward to some color this summer. However, all of these wishes and wants are still in my imagination. Right now there are two tulips just beginning to emerge and that’s it for any plants in the garden today. The birds are lively though, and so am I.

      This summer I plan on working in the front of the house. I used to put out large pots of impatiens that bloomed like crazy but there were none to be had at the garden center last summer and they were demanding, needing water at least twice a day, even on my north facing porch. The front was sadly neglected and I owe it, and my arriving guests, some special attention, I took away the big terracotta pots, and all the decorations and I'm starting fresh. When me moved in there was no landscaping of which to speak. The lawn had not been mowed in years and the only decorations were the soggy bags of throwaway newspapers left mournfully on the grass. We planted two white dogwood trees and replaced the asbestos shingles on the house with siding and painted all the trim. I'm not a big fan of the brick walkway and step but I will work with what I have.
      Here is a picture of the house when we bought it:

      Here is what it looked like before I started this project:

    It began with cutting back the old ivy and thoroughly raking the yard. That part wasn't any fun and I had to work around a bit of lingering snow. I'll have to wait to repaint the threshold into the house and then dig up around the top brick step for some boxwood bushes. I chose them because they are easy to care for, will camouflage the sides of the steps, and don't grow too fast. But the planting will have to come later. The main step is a good size, nearly ten by five feet, so I have plenty of room for some lovely things that would welcome my visitors. 
    I already have a rubber doormat. It looks fine and has survived many frozen winters but it does nothing to keep any dirt out of the house and now it has been moved down a step. I bought a roll of indoor/outdoor carpet with a rubber backing and cut it to size with heavy scissors. It was a bit narrower than the step, but much wider, so I cut it to fit evenly around the edge. It was easy to cut but hard on my poor knuckles.

      I searched everywhere for the right urns. I wanted a pair that was tall and finally found what I was looking for on Amazon and they weren't hundreds of dollars. My front step is very windy and I have lost many lovely decorations. I filled the base of the urns with a brick and foam insulation and cut a circle of plastic and glued it to the bottom with calking. Now, even though they are vinyl, they are nice and heavy. I filled the planters sections with pea gravel and weighted down a couple of ferns. There are more details on the plants later in this post.

    The old bench came from my bird garden, which has been replaced with a newer version, and I cut this one down to make it into a shorter seat. Because it is basically two iron sides and simply slats in between, I unscrewed the wood, cut them to a smaller size, repainted and reassembled everything. It was a big job, and the screws that held down the wood were badly rusted. After dowsing them with WD40 and fighting and wrestling, only two of them came free and the rest had to be cut with a hacksaw. Great fun with the greasy oil. It's a good thing I planned on shortening the wood slats, since I had to cut them from the bench and hammer out the leftover pieces to get to the rusty screws. I did ask myself at one point, why I just didn't give up and buy a darned new chair, but I was determined! Now for just the cost of the paint and a feeling of accomplishment (along with very toned upper arms), I have a welcoming seat that I know withstands the weather and gives me a place to sit on my front step.

      The bench sides, disassembled and ready for painting:

      My vision is coming along. The perfect thing to say “welcome” is a sign. I got a cut piece of sign wood from the craft store and painted it white. With my Slice shape cutter I cut Welcome into card stock and turned them into stencils. I used the cut out letters for the layout and marked it with little penciled dots.

     Inspired by some lovely front door posts I saw on Pinterest, I purchased a turned deck post for about $11 at Lowes, gathered up some pressure-treated planks from my scrap collection and built a base.

The post had a notch, which I cut off, and I cut the scrap lumber, which was about 2 inches thick, for the stand. I pre-drilled holes and used long deck screws to attach them to the bottom of the post. First I screwed the smallest block to the post, and then the next largest, etc. so the screws are only visible from the bottom.

      Then I took it outside, sanded and sprayed it satin black, added a silver coat hook, a bow and hung up my sign:

      Of course a pop of color is always nice and welcoming so I filled a basket with geraniums. Then I grabbed the expanding foam and gravel I used for the urns.
Into an old pot I shot the foam and while it was as sticky as hot gum I poured in some gravel:

I stuck the silk flowers into the gravel, shot in some more foam and patted on some potting soil: 

      I painted an old pail white, threw in some more gravel and set in the flower pot. It's very heavy and won't blow away.

      With the addition of a pretty lantern my vision has been accomplished, at least until the ground is warm enough for bushes. It is even better than I had imagined. I added a little chalk board heart for a personal message, for things like, “I’m in the Garden”, or a message for the mailman like, “ If it looks like a bill send it back”.

      And here is my new front step! The hook on the post is large enough for a wreath, perhaps one with red roses for Valentine's Day or pretty pine cones and evergreens for Christmas. Now when my guests arrive I hope they feel much more welcome.

This one shows the crocheted curtain I made years ago for privacy when the door is open. I hope you enjoyed sharing this project with me!

See you next week!


March 18, 2015

On the Porch


     It’s March in eastern Pennsylvania, it's the first day of spring and it's snowing. This is a very weather-filled place. Growing up in southern California was quite a contrast. Here we get it all. We have snow in the winter, and apparently in the spring as well, along with chilling temperatures. Right now it’s a nice balmy thirty degrees outside. In the spring, even with snow, it's beautiful, but alas, the long winter can make the spring season seem far too short. In the summer it's humid and can get very hot. I like weather, as a whole. It keeps you on your toes. You can wear a wide variety of clothing, always have something to talk about and it reminds you that time is passing every day. Another thing about weather that I find interesting is that whatever temperatures we are experiencing we are wishing for the opposite. In February, we long for those hot summer days. In July everyone complains saying "Hot enough for you?" or "It's not the heat, it's the humidity". I rarely however, hear anyone saying they miss the snow. Especially this morning.

     I've been very busy in the yard this week, raking up piles of leftover leaves and a winter's worth of sunflower seed shells from beneath my bird feeders. It was hard work but the warmer weather inspired me to pull out my flamingos and chairs, ready to enjoy the spring season. Instead, for the first time, they are both covered in snow. It seems I will have to wait just a bit longer for the breezes and butterflies.

    Recently, I had a conversation with a friend and we discussed the difference between living in one place where we have four very obvious seasons and another where the temperature doesn't change much, and is almost "weatherless". She remarked that, in a consistent climate, you never say, "I had a bad winter". She's right. I don't remember ever hearing anyone say that in southern California.

     So, while we wait for a warmer spring, I'll take you back in time to 2006, the summer we added a screened porch to our humble home. When we bought the house there was a porch, accessible through lovely French doors in the living room. It had a roof and a floor of sorts but it was falling apart and filled with big black bees. We rarely ventured out there the first couple of years we lived here, while we worked on other projects. But if you did go out there on a hot day, a cool breeze always welcomed you and you could sit and get a pretty view of the neighborhood. One day my husband commented that perhaps we should put in a screened porch and I was very excited about his idea.

      And so it began. In February we started tearing out the rotten wood and adding new supports. It was cold but we were excited and the two of us worked in heavy coats for a few hours here and there. We kept at it almost every day and every spare minute and by Memorial Day we were enjoying a refreshing cold drink on our new porch.

      There is a fountain there to provide the sounds of gurgling water and sheer curtains to blow in even the slightest breeze. There is shade and shelter and a fan overhead. 

     Come with me then and sit down in the rocker and imagine yourself there, underneath the ceiling fan, on a good hot day with a tall lemonade sweating in your hand. The seasons will change and one day soon summer will come again.

Please come back next week!

March 14, 2015

Growing Old

Old friends...
Sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes 
of the old friends...
Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
                                                  - Paul Simon 

      I suppose I have always imagined growing old. My childhood, like most, was very much about the destinations and less about the journeys. I waited for those birthdays, milestone checkpoints where I would be old enough to wear make-up, go on dates, get my driver's license or move out of the house. There were specific things I wanted to do and then there were those things in the far future I'd get to eventually. I would imagine, for example, what kind of an old woman I wanted to be. Now that inevitability looms larger on the horizon and I find myself thinking back to my impressions of old from a younger age.

      I remember a woman I saw walking one hot, summer day on Venice beach. I was about ten at the time. She was wearing the latest summer fashion that year, a black one-piece bathing suit that was cut to the navel, the center plunge bearing a sheer mesh insert. She was tanned as brown as a coconut, extremely thin, and was as wrinkled as a raisin. I would guess she was about 75. I remember she was strolling along the edge of the surf and she was, as they say, "working it." 

      I also remember that, down the street from my home near Rose Avenue, in Venice, there was a corner store. Before 7-11's it seemed every neighborhood had a little market of its own. It's where I discovered wax lips and candy dots stuck to paper strips. I remember buying cigarettes for my mom with a note and 35 cents for the pack. There was an older woman who shopped there regularly. Her hair was solid jet black, neatly smooth beneath a fine hair net. She wore a vast amount of red rouge, solid on her ancient cheeks and her lipstick was waxy and vibrant. It also covered far more than her lips, smeared out along the edges. She was friendly and distinctive and one could not help but notice her. I would bet she was close to eighty.
      Another woman who lived in my neighborhood was very different than both of these ladies. Her hair was a soft silver, always neatly tied in a ponytail, a blunt medium length against her slender back. She wore muddy gloves and she grew marigolds and stag-horn ferns in her amazing garden. I never saw her wearing makeup or nail polish and all of her color came from the California sunshine.
      At about the same age, my grandmother was not like any of these women. She was traditional, with just a bit of lipstick and white hair permed into neat rows of short curls. She was a wiz with a needle and a bit of fabric. She was as soft and warm as an old quilt. She didn't attract a lot of attention, never strutting along the beach or making up for her daily sojourn to the corner store. I never knew her to garden, beyond a heart shaped philodendron on her window sill. She was an older woman too, but none of those ladies were the same.
      As a kid I'd wonder briefly what kind of an old woman I would be. I didn't think it would just happen and so I'd have to figure out what style I would choose. I'd decide on that special day when I "got old" and then fall into a type like these ladies had done. I believed I'd have a choice. I couldn't decide then, but even as I grow older now, I still have not made up my mind.
      The lady on the beach was forever twenty-one. In her mirror she saw herself like Sofia Vergara, I think, young, voluptuous and curvy. As she walked along that sunny shoreline she felt beautiful and mesmerizing. The little lady in the corner store might have been on stage once, for her colorful personality and cosmetics. I'm certain, had I asked her to sing or dance, she would have put on a lovely performance. The woman down the street with her amazing garden knew the earth beneath her feet and I suspect she puttered in her yard all the rest of her days. When I last saw my grandmother she was quiet and reserved.
      None of these women made the choice where they would land in their autumn years. Their identities were the culmination of their lifetimes, an evolution of circumstances and all the little choices over the years. In the later years of their lives they were not so different than they were as young women, whether sexy or vibrant or natural or sweet. I applaud them all.

      I cannot answer the question of what kind of an old woman I will be any more now than I can say what kind of a young woman I was and who am I today. I hope I am not too terribly far past the middle of my life. I am many women. I am forever twenty-one. I am made-up and wishing I was dancing on stage, I have dirt beneath my fingernails and a needle in my hand. I am all of those women I have seen and appreciated and I am myself. If I am lucky I will be an old lady who inspires as well. I doubt it will be in a fetching, vintage bathing suit but there's still time.
      I am beginning to realize that growing old is challenging. Age is mean to your body and the world seems to make less and less sense. I know now that it is not so much that an older generation is disapproving of youth, but more that experience has taught us what inexperience can do. It means that as I grow older I must sit back and watch the young make their own mistakes because they too must learn so they will one day know what I know now. I have learned that some people grow to only a certain age and then emotionally they are stuck there. I know people who are forty going on thirteen. Imagine the fun old ladies they may be one day.  
     And so, I am still becoming the old lady I will be. I'll try to remember to let you know what I come up with when it happens.

Thank you for visiting. Please come back next week.

March 7, 2015

Feel the Fear and Felt Anyway

     I suppose we've all done it. We've taken a nice sweater, possibly even a lovely gifted one, tossed it into the washer and dryer without a thought, and discovered that the article has shrunk to half its original size. We have unintentionally felted. This can be disappointing or even devastating, depending on the clothing that has been shrunk. But, from every mistake made by man, or woman, there ought to be a lesson learned. Hail to the person who shrunk a nice wool sweater and then saw the positive possibilities.
     On one of my Facebook accounts I was invited into an art challenge and for five days I posted my handiwork. I chose my knit and crocheted handbags. One of the bags I posted happened to be a felted bag. Felting is the purposeful way of shrinking wool in a controlled, and planned manner. Felting is great fun. By taking a simple and over-sized knitted piece and giving it a good hot wash, even in today's washing machines, we can turn out the most interesting felted works. When you felt a knitted wool item it looses the stitch definition and turns heavy and thick and smooth. It's great fun because until the felt process is complete there is an element of surprise. You can only imagine what the thing will look like until the hot water and agitation has performed its magic. If you knit, it is well worth a try.

     The first project I felted intentionally was a handbag. Even though I thought I was a seasoned knitter and all around knitting-know-it-all, it was a fail. Yes, wool felts nicely, however a yarn made of a wool and acrylic mixture does not. It seems that there are wool blend yarns mixed with acrylics for exactly that reason. You can wash them in the machine and they won't shrink. This is great for everyday wear, but lousy for that knitter who wants to felt. I knitted a huge black bag, tossed it in the hot water wash and nothing. It was really clean but it did not shrink. I learned, got real 100% wool yarn and tried again. Not only was it successful but a bit addictive. I bought some more yarn, knit some rather floppy looking wool tulips and felted them. I had found felting success.

     There is a bit of luck in felting. I have discovered that basically you make something roughly one and a half times the size you want your finished project to be once it is felted. That measurement can vary however. I think this is part of the fun. You get a bit nervous until that wash cycle runs for a few minutes. You stop the washer, lift out that soaking bundle of wet, woolly knitting and hold your breath. You're nervous and the house smells like wet sheep. Did it work? Is it shrunk enough? Too much? If it's not quite shrunk enough, no problem. It goes back into the hot water for another few minutes of shrinking magic. If it has shrunk too much you can take it out, rinse it quickly in cold water and tug it into shape but it may be doomed to be too small. Never allow any felting project to run for more than about ten minutes without checking it. It has worked for me, with 100% wool, of course, every time.

So today I will share some pictures of my felting projects. This bag is one I made only a few days ago. The first photo shows the rather shapeless bag before it went in for the felting:

A soaked, wool bag takes about two days to dry. This is what the bag looked like felted and dried:

For the following bag I used the fiber from an Alpaca that I got at a local farm. Alpaca is very much like wool. It felts beautifully and it is incredibly soft. This bag now belongs to a lovely knitter I know.

First here is a shot of the sweet fellow who gave up his winter coat:

Here he is laying quietly beneath the shearer who gave him the haircut he badly needed. Look at his sweet face. Alpaca are very gentle.

Here he is minus his coat:

After I combed and spun the Alpaca fiber into yarn I knitted the bag:

Here it is felted and ready to be loved:

This is a 100% wool hat before felting:

And after. You can see here how much the size is reduced:

Another Alpaca project. This little felted bag holds my spinning tools at my wheel:

My first successfully felted bag. The handle is a horse bit. I love this bag!

A close-up of the tulips:

I hope you are inspired, not only to felt, but to come visit again next week!