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Pruning our smoke tree into a bush

By on March 26, 2015


We’re back in the garden, and this time we’re pruning our smoke tree… again! You may remember that we originally tried this last year, with disastrous results. Well, now we’re changing up our landscaping techniques and hoping that this second time will be a charm.

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

What is a smoke tree? It’s a colorful ornamental plant (genus name: Cotinus) that gets its common name from unique billowy flower clusters that appear in spring and resemble puffs of smoke. There are several smoke tree varieties (Royal Purple, Velvet Cloak, Grace, Golden Spirit and more), with deciduous leaves that vary from green to deep red to dark purple, depending on the season and species. Often used as a prominent accent in the garden because of its brilliant colors and unusual flowers, this plant can range in size from 8 to 30 feet in height, and it’s drought- and cold-tolerant. In other words, it’s very hardy and it grows fast! We’re not sure what variety ours is – John is thinking Royal Purple, but I’m leaning more toward Grace.

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Last year, we planned to trim down our smoke tree to make it smaller and more contained than before. We talked about our subsequent pruning attempt (and failure) in this post, but basically we pruned it at the wrong time of year (mid-winter) and in the wrong spots (we cut the branches at their ends, instead of at the branch collars). This caused the tree’s branches to skyrocket once the weather turned warm, rather than grow into the tidy compact shrub we were hoping for.

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Our goal – a cute little smoke tree underneath our dining nook window – was figuratively buried under the smoky monster that grew over and completely obliterated our backyard garden view. I mean, who needs curtains when you’ve got giant overgrown leafy branches?

Overgrown Smoke Tree | Rather Square

And by autumn, the tree branches had grown all the way to the roof line. While the bright reddish-orange color was really beautiful, the tree totally obscured our ornamental cherry tree and little Japanese maple. (Can’t see them in the photos below? That’s my point! They’re hiding next to the stairs on the left.)

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

So, obviously not the results we were hoping for when we first pruned the smoke tree. And once the summer growing season was in full swing, any further pruning would just spur more growth, so we had no choice but to sit on our hands and wait. In the meantime, we did some more smoke tree pruning research (see our sources at the end of this post), and that’s when we started to consider rejuvenating the smoke tree by cutting it almost all the way to the ground. In theory this pruning method will encourage a smaller bushy plant instead of the taller splayed tree we’ve had for the past couple of years. Ideally, we’d like to end up with something about this size:

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com
(image via Gardenista)

Fast-forward (through a long snowy Midwest winter) to a few weeks ago. With the plant still dormant in the chilly late-winter weather, John gave our new smoke-tree-to-bush pruning method a try. He started by trimming off the numerous small upper branches with long-handled loppers.

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

As he worked his way down the tree, he switched to a bow saw to cut through the thicker branches. (While he’s used this versatile tool on a variety of projects over the last 20 years, a more common saw for pruning is a folding saw like this one - it’s better for maneuvering around dense branch growth and conveniently folds up in your pocket when not in use.)

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

The previous owner had tied the smoke tree to a wooden trellis staked into the ground, to support it as it grew. But when John started removing the ties to take out the trellis, we realized that it had already been pulled out of the soil by the tree’s overgrown strength. It was literally hanging on by a thread!

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

After detaching the trellis, John revved up his trusty chainsaw to cut the main trunks of the smoke tree (the same way he sawed through our giant yew bushes last summer).

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

This is what we were left with when it was all over.

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

And our view to the backyard is much improved!

Pruning our Smoke Tree into a Bush | RatherSquare.com

Now we just have to wait and see how things grow back this summer. According to our research, smoke trees usually experience a rapid growth rate after pruning (and we found that out firsthand last year) – up to 6 feet or more in height! But while the leaves will be bigger and more colorful than before, the signature “smoke” flowers may not appear until the following year.

It’s hard to imagine that this plant could go from 2-inch stumps to 6-foot-tall branches in one growing season, but we amateur gardeners are definitely intrigued – and hope we pruned it right this time. We’ll keep you posted on the progress!

Some of our sources for smoke tree information include:
The Arbor Day Foundation
Houzz article on using smoke trees in landscape design
Gardening Know How

What do you think – did we prune the smoke tree too much? Will it grow back, or will we be left with a big empty space in the garden this summer?

Links may contain affiliates.

March 26, 2015

[ 6 ]

How to choose your ideal neighborhood

By on March 12, 2015


I’m over at Porch.com today, sharing some important questions to ask yourself during your house hunt! For us, homeownership wasn’t just about buying a house, but also about joining a neighborhood community.

Our Home Buying Story | Rather Square

Doing some in-depth research to find a location that would support our young family’s lifestyle helped us discover a great neighborhood that’s been perfect for us.

How did you decide where to live? What do you like about your neighborhood, and what would you change about it?

March 12, 2015

[ 6 ]

Flea market adventures (and a little advice)

By on March 4, 2015


This past weekend, John and I had a rare kid-free afternoon and we decided to hit up the Kane County Flea Market, about an hour west of Chicago. We both love flea markets but realized we hadn’t ever been to one together (crazy!). So we drove out in the cold and snow for the flea market’s opening weekend of the year, not quite sure what to expect but looking forward to a few hours of browsing around. We mainly wanted to see what this flea market had to offer and hopefully find a little inspiration along the way.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

Flea markets are fun, but can be overwhelming if you don’t have some kind of plan ahead of time. Keeping our 2015 goals in mind, we agreed to purchase something only if A) it fit our specific home renovation needs, and B) it was a good value for the cost. John wanted to look for benches for our front and back entry areas, and I planned to keep my eyes open for cheap picture frames (for a wall art project I want to do in the nursery) and interesting drawer knobs (for the toddler’s new dresser). We also brought some essential flea market tools with us: a tape measure, our list of things to look for, measurements and diagrams of the rooms in our house, and low expectations.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

Once we got to the flea market, we kept our eyes peeled for items that were solid and affordable, and avoided the booths selling mass-market junk and cutesy-crafty stuff. We noticed that a lot of the furniture for sale was of the “vintage-repurposed” variety, like these pieces we saw when we first walked in.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

It reminded us a little of “Flea Market Flip,” the TV show where people buy raw-state items at flea markets, create something new with them, then turn around and resell them at the flea market as custom design pieces. The “flip” furniture we saw at the Kane County Flea Market was pretty cool, but not really something we’d consider buying – both because we want to refurbish pieces ourselves, and because the “flip” prices were way above our budget. Still, we enjoyed checking them out for inspiration and ideas.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

In terms of potential benches for our entryways, nothing we saw was quite right for our needs (or wallets). But because our expectations were low to begin with, it was fun to just browse around and see what else people were selling. We noticed a lot of vintage woodworking tools, like these old planers that John found.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

I spent some time looking through this table full of old drawer pulls, handles and other hardware. Nothing that was perfect for my dresser project, but I got some good ideas.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

We discovered a lot of random odds and ends, like a doll-sized metal play kitchen (so cute), an old rotary telephone (for when the toddler starts asking for her own phone), and a box of red 45s.

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

And a plethora of pop culture memorabilia, like this Star Trek game (a nice collectible for Spock fans – RIP, Leonard Nimoy).

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

I browsed around booths full of old books, and found gems like these useful handbooks for judo and revenge (hey, you never know when knowledge like that might come in handy).

Flea Market Fun | Rather Square

Ultimately, we didn’t have much luck in our hunt for benches, knobs and frames. Since we were only able to get out to this flea market during the afternoon of the last day, not a lot of good finds were left, and in fact some dealers were already calling it a day and packing up their booths. So we ended up going home empty-handed this time.

But despite the less-than-ideal conditions, we had a fun afternoon! Cheaper than a movie date (it’s $5 admission for adults, and children under 12 are free), especially if you don’t end up making any big purchases. I definitely want to go to this flea market again, but maybe when the weather warms up a bit (so there’ll be more dealers outside) and next time we’ll come earlier in the weekend when things aren’t so picked-over. And we can even bring the kids along for a fun family outing. This Conde Nast Traveler article has some great tips and advice for visiting the Kane County Flea Market, if you’d like more information.

The best advice we have for flea market goers: Have a list of ideas ahead of time, but keep your expectations low and your budget firm. Consider your visit as an adventure with a mystery ending. Expect to see fun, interesting and just plain weird things (and people!). Be flexible, and you won’t be disappointed. And if after all of that, you score an amazing find for your home too… bonus!

(linked on Remodelaholic and Miss Mustard Seed)

March 4, 2015

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Pruning hydrangeas in winter

By on February 23, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the weather was perfect to do some gardening. So I put on my snow boots and winter coat, grabbed a shovel and some pruning shears, and went outside to prune our Annabelle hydrangeas.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Yes, I probably should have pruned these hydrangea bushes last fall (like I did the first time with great success). But in the first few months of adjusting to life with Baby T, garden maintenance wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, so the hydrangeas were left on their own as fall turned into winter.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

I’ve read that Annabelle hydrangeas can be pruned anytime between autumn and early spring (check out this site and these guidelines and this blog post) because they bloom on new wood. So I decided to put it to the ultimate test and try pruning them in the dead of winter this year. You know, in the snow and ice and freezing cold. That’s not crazy, right?

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Before starting to prune, I had to dig the bushes out a bit since they were buried in a huge snowdrift. I wanted to cut down the branches to about 18 inches from the ground, so I used a small shovel to clear snow from the areas I wanted to prune. I tried not to damage the branches, but I did end up scraping a few of them and exposed the green insides.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

When I had shoveled enough to be able to see what I had to work with, I started trimming. Some of the branches were still bent down and buried under the snow, so I pulled these out to prune them. And I completely trimmed off the few sections where I had scraped the stems with the shovel.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Once I pruned everything down to about 18 inches, I collected all the trimmed branches and put them in a yard bag for pickup later on in spring.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

We’ve had a cold and snowy February here in the Midwest, so when things warm up and melt a little, I’ll check if any stray stems were hiding under the snow.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Hopefully this won’t be another pruning fail like the smoke tree (which we still haven’t fixed yet, by the way!). Is there such a thing as having a white thumb (instead of a green or black one) for gardening in winter? If this risky landscaping move works, I’m going to declare winter gardening (and #whitethumb) a new trend.

Cross your fingers (again) that I haven’t killed our gorgeous Annabelle hydrangea. What do you think – will Annabelle survive?

February 23, 2015

[ 12 ]

Balance, value, and our goals for 2015

By on February 16, 2015


John and I have finally nailed down (pun intended!) our house project plans for 2015, and we’re excited to share them! Our challenge this year: How to get the most value from our small budget and limited free time.

How to get the most value from a small budget and limited free time | Rather Square

We’re starting out the year with a very limited house project budget, mainly for two reasons. First of all, we need to continue funneling cash into our emergency fund (since it was nearly drained to pay for the new furnace last year), and build it back up to a comfortable level so that we’re again prepared for unexpected disasters. Secondly, we’re still catching up financially after the unpaid maternity leave I took last year from my day job after Baby T was born. Since we’re committed to staying as debt-free as possible, this means that we need to be smart about how we spend on home improvement and DIY projects.

So we did a bit of informal cost-benefit analysis, and our first priority will be projects that improve our home’s functionality and safety. But we’re also adding some fun design projects to our list, things we can DIY at a minimal cost but that will have a big impact. Finally, we’ll need to fit these projects into our already-busy daily life and family responsibilities, so we’re trying to be as flexible as possible with our expectations and timeframes. It’s all about balance and keeping an eye on the big picture.

Without further ado, here are our goals and plans for 2015!


GOAL: Get an energy audit
WHEN: Before spring

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

We talked about scheduling an energy audit last year, but then didn’t follow through in favor of other projects. Now we’re finally planning to set up an audit next month so that we can get a clear overall picture of our home’s energy efficiency. Our new furnace was a big step in the right direction, and hopefully the results of the audit will help us make smart decisions going forward.

Our energy audit will cost about $100, but it’s a good investment and a valuable resource. Knowledge is power.


GOAL: Finish Toddler E’s bedroom
WHEN: Late winter/early spring

Toddler Girl Bedroom | Rather Square

Toddler Bedroom Owl Art | Rather Square

We’re so close to finishing the toddler’s big-girl room! The big remaining task is to hang some art on her walls. She’s already got these fun owl prints, and we’ll be looking for a few more affordable pieces to fill out the room (and then figure out how to hang them on the plaster walls – a question that applies to our whole house). Finally, we’re going to add shelving and a light to her closet.

The cost of completing this room will be pretty minimal, and Toddler E is excited to have her very own special space (which makes us all happy).


GOAL: Finish Baby T’s nursery
WHEN: Spring/early summer

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

Updating Curtains in a Nursery | Rather Square

The nursery too is nearly done, but there are a few important changes and additions we need to make. When we first bought the house, this room was used for storage and we painted the walls a blue-gray color. But now that we’ve re-designed this room as Baby T’s nursery, I’m realizing that a warmer paint tone would better tie the other design elements (like the rug, furniture and accessories) together. Also, the curtains we originally chose are too flimsy and short, and we need to find some more substantial panels to block light while Baby T sleeps. And then once the walls are repainted, we want to get (or make) some unique artwork to hang in here. Finally, we’ll add a shelf and lighting to the closet.

Finishing the nursery will cost a little more than the toddler’s room (we’ll need to purchase paint, curtain material and artwork), but I think we can be really creative here to get the most value for our budget.


GOAL: Clean up the front yard landscaping
WHEN: Summer

Front Yard Landscaping | Rather Square

Late Summer Landscaping | Rather Square

We’re not planning to take on any big landscaping projects this year, but there are a few smaller things we can do to tidy up the front of the house that will hopefully improve its curb appeal. First, we’d like to have the stumps of the yew shrubs removed. When John cut the yews down last summer, he left these in place since they weren’t something we wanted to try removing on our own. So this summer, we’ll hire someone to dig out the roots properly (to us, it’s a good value for the cost). We also want to add some more grass seed, take out our half-dead rosebushes, and transplant some of our backyard garden to the front. Our thumbs aren’t always green, but at least moving around the plants we already have is free!

This project will probably run us anywhere from $100 to $300 (root removal, grass seed, mulch and other basic landscaping upkeep materials), but aside from the root removal, we’ll be keeping costs down by doing this work ourselves.


GOAL: Refresh the front porch
WHEN: Summer

Front Porch | Rather Square

Front Porch Mailbox | Rather Square

There are a few front porch DIY projects that we’ve been meaning to do since we moved in, and this summer is a great time to finally get these underway. First, we want to repaint the hunter green steps and porch floor with a new color, and also add some traction to the steps since they get really slippery in the winter. While we’re at it, we want to replace the old brassy exterior light fixture, the rusty purple mailbox, and maybe even repaint the outer screen door.

All of this would improve both the front porch’s function (making it safer during snowy and rainy weather) and its visual aesthetics (hunter green and purple are not our favorite colors!). So these improvements should be a good investment and a good value.


GOAL: Repair and paint the back deck
WHEN: Summer

Back Deck | Rather Square

Back Deck Stairs | Rather Square

We use our back deck every morning as we leave the house for school and work. The wood is mostly in good shape, but it’s weathered and there are some areas that need reinforcement and/or rebuilding (like the wood on the bottom step in the above photo that just fell off soon after we moved in). So our first task is to repair any instabilities and make sure the structure is solid. After that, John wants to clean and paint the deck with a product like Deckover to both protect the wood and give it a slightly-rough, non-slip surface so it’s safer to walk on in the winter.

We’d love to build a bigger, better deck sometime in the future, but for now our goal is to make the existing deck stronger and safer. These fixes are relatively inexpensive and will go a long way toward extending its life and usefulness.


That takes us through the next six months or so, but as we found out last year, a lot can change in that time. So right now we don’t want to make any concrete plans beyond the end of this summer – instead, we’d like to see how things go with these initial projects, and then go from there. Since our lives and needs are always evolving, it’s better to keep our plans flexible. (And who knows – maybe we’ll win the lottery next month, and this carefully-budget-conscious list will suddenly get a lot bigger and shinier…!)

What are your goals for 2015 (home improvement and otherwise)?

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February 16, 2015