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Posts Tagged “yew shrubs”

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)?

February 16, 2015

State of the House: Downstairs, outside and more

By on January 15, 2015

We’re almost done reviewing all the progress (and um, lack of progress) we’ve made on our home so far, before jumping into our project ideas for 2015. In our last two posts we looked at the first floor and second floor, so now let’s head into the basement and then outside to see what’s left on our home improvement to-do list.


Basement Woodworking Studio | Rather Square

Basement Woodworking Studio | Rather Square


Still to do…

General thoughts:

When we bought our house, the basement was divided into a semi-finished room (used by the former owners as a music rehearsal space) and an unfinished utility area. We haven’t done much to the utility area except upgrade the laundry machines, but John spent some time last year remodeling the other room to be his woodworking studio (pictured above). We definitely owe you a couple of posts on that project! The rest of the basement will be a long-term, small-sections-at-a-time renovation.


Repairing Stucco | Rather Square

Built-In Window Boxes | Rather Square


Still to do…

General thoughts:

Here we’ve got some small projects we can tackle easily (like upgrading the rusty battered mailbox) and huge ones that we’ll have to save up for (like repainting the entire exterior). The front and back entrances of the house are both somewhat dilapidated and will need attention soon – we’ll probably repaint and reinforce them as a short-term fix and then totally rebuild them down the road.


Garage, Before | Rather Square


Still to do…

General thoughts:

The garage was built around the same time as our house, so it’s almost a century old. While the structure itself is solid and the roof was replaced by the previous owner, our home inspection noted that the original foundation has become very unstable over time. There are huge heaving cracks in the concrete floor caused by water damage that are getting worse every year. So, inspired by an episode of Rehab Addict, we got an estimate last year to lift up the garage structure, remove the old foundation, and repour a new one. It’s much more cost-effective than building a whole new garage, especially since the current walls and roof are still in good condition. Now that we have a quote, we’re hoping we can get these garage issues addressed before the foundation deteriorates much further.


Front Yard Landscaping | Rather Square

Annabelle Hydrangea | Rather Square


Still to do…

General thoughts:

Our home’s previous owner spent a lot of thought and energy on the landscaping around the property. But while the ornamental garden, bushes and trees are beautiful, we don’t have enough time or resources to maintain them on the extensive level they require. So we’ve started redesigning the landscaping to better fit our interests and needs. The most dramatic transformation so far has been when John cut down our yews last summer, and we want to continue reimagining this front yard space with more inviting curb appeal.

Energy systems

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

Old Furnace, New Furnace | Rather Square


Still to do…

General thoughts:

Even though our old house has a brand-new furnace, air conditioner, whole-house humidifier, and smart thermostat, it’s still woefully under-insulated, so we lose a lot of heat and energy through the outside walls and attic. We’ve gotten some preliminary estimates to add modern insulation that seem reasonable, but we need to save some bucks for that substantial project.

Whew, it feels like we’ve got enough work on our to-do list to last the next million years! Now we just need to decide what should be given top priority to complete by the end of this year.

What project(s) do you think we should work on first? What’s on your home improvement to-do list this year? Let us know in the comments!

Missed our recap of the first and second floors? Check those out here:
State of the House: First floor
State of the House: Second floor

January 15, 2015

A late summer landscaping round-up

By on August 14, 2014

It seems like we’ve been doing a lot of outdoor work this summer. Some projects were planned, others came up unexpectedly, and one or two were even emergencies. Since we knew we’d be having a new baby at the end of this season, we kept our landscaping ambitions low (in order to prioritize baby-related house updates). But somehow, we found ourselves outside every weekend working on something or other on our little plot of land. Here’s a round-up of what’s been going on.


Our biggest project this summer was cutting down the eight giant yew shrubs in our front yard.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

John did this work himself with a variety of tools (including a chainsaw) and cleared away all the debris and old mulch, leaving us with eight short stumps and a front yard full of dirt.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

We knew we wouldn’t have time this summer to do any major new landscaping in the former yew space, but John has managed a few small updates. First, he divided some hostas from our backyard (we have a lot back there) and replanted them in front of the stumps. Then he added new wood mulch to the area around the stumps and hostas, creating more of a defined border around the house. Finally, he planted grass seed in the remaining yard space to fill in up to the sidewalk.

Late Summer Landscaping | Rather Square

The grass has mostly grown in well (except for one stubborn patch that we’re still trying to cultivate) and the hostas are hanging in there. Those take a few years to fill out, so we’re optimistic. You can also see a few straggly rosebushes (with no roses) near the sidewalk – we’ve left those in the ground for now, but they’ve never really flourished, and we’ll probably dig them out eventually. Finally, John transplanted some ornamental grass (that he brought from our backyard) around the horse head hitching post – some of it has thrived, some hasn’t. We’ll see what survives this next winter.

Late Summer Landscaping | Rather Square

Now that the yews aren’t crowding everything else out, we’ve got a blank slate to be really creative here. There’s a lot more work to be done, but this is a good start and will hold us over until we have more time to devote to this area in the future.


We can’t forget our Annabelle hydrangeas! We’ve got about four of these bushes, and they were kind of big and floppy last summer. They draped over our paved walkway and were starting to block the path, as you can see below.

Late Summer Hydrangeas | Rather Square

After learning more about them last year, pruning them aggressively last fall, and watching them start to come back to life this spring, they’ve really bloomed nicely this summer.

Late Summer Hydrangeas | Rather Square

It was just the result I was hoping for – smaller bushes that don’t block our walkway access, but still lots of big fluffy blooms. So I must have done something right when pruning them last fall (unlike our failed smoke tree experiment). I’m so glad they grew back and thrived this year – they’re some of our favorite flowers in the garden!

Window boxes

Back in June, we bought some leafy vines and coleus plants for our window boxes (instead of planting herbs like we did last year). We hoped they would grow and drape over the sides and look really pretty.

Window Box Garden | Rather Square

We haven’t had time for much upkeep, and we’ve only been watering the window boxes sporadically because of our busy schedules. The coleus plants have held up pretty well, but the vines kind of shriveled and dried up.

Window Box Garden with Vines and Coleus | Rather Square

This is one gardening project that has fallen to the bottom of our priority list as we get ready for baby, but if we’d put a little more effort in maintaining and caring for these window boxes, they’d probably look much better right now. Maybe next summer we’ll have more time to tend to these.


We’ve got a stone paver walkway that extends the full length of our lot on one side – it leads from the front curb to our back alley. We get a lot of weeds in between the stones and one of our long-term goals is to fill in the walkway spaces with polymeric sand for a more finished appearance. But John noticed some patches of moss growing in one shady spot near the side of the house (you can see it in the 2014 Annabelle hydrangea photo above), and decided to try and cultivate this look for now. It’s really pretty!

Cultivating Moss | Rather Square

We probably can’t grow moss along the entire walkway, because it needs shady and damp conditions to thrive, and most of the walkway gets full sun. But for this one little area, it’s been a fun experiment to encourage a mossy green interlude.

Cultivating Moss | Rather Square

Oak tree

Our large oak tree provides a lot of shade (and pretty yellow leaves in the fall) and helps keep the front of our house cool in the summer. Unfortunately, it has also been providing squirrels with a easy access route to our roof, and earlier this summer we discovered that some of these squirrels had gotten into the empty space above our sunroom. John climbed up a ladder to take a look, and realized that there wasn’t much flashing along the roof line (despite the fact that this roof was just put on a few years ago). So in order to keep animals out and to protect the exposed wood, he installed new aluminum flashing around the entire house.

Installing Roof Flashing | Rather Square

This was one of these projects we hadn’t planned for, but it was a necessary fix. Since John was able to do it himself, we saved a lot of money than if we’d hired someone to come out and do the work.

In addition, he cut back several overhanging branches on the oak tree to discourage future tree-dwellers from migrating to our house. After trimming most of them from the ground with an extendable tree trimmer, he climbed the tree with a smaller tool to get some out-of-the-way stragglers.

Trimming Oak Tree Branches | Rather Square

We’re really hoping that these DIY preventative measures will help keep the roof free of unwanted visitors from now on.


Speaking of unwanted visitors… another unplanned project we encountered this summer (and didn’t save money on) was dealing with this hornets’ nest. We noticed it out of the blue one day a few weeks ago, and it was positioned right over our front sidewalk in the lower branches of the oak tree. It was a big safety issue for anybody walking by our house.

Bald Faced Hornets Nest | Rather Square

The nest had to be removed ASAP, but we decided to leave this job to the pros. So we called in a pest control company. Once the guy came out and got a good look at the nest, he told us that we had dangerous bald-faced hornets living there. They can get really angry and aggressive when defending their space (a single hornet can sting someone multiple times), especially when someone destroys their home. So he wore full-body protection, sprayed the nest, and then cut it down while we watched safely from inside the house. It cost us $250 for the removal, but it was definitely not something we would have been able to (or want to) take on ourselves.

Bald Faced Hornets Nest | Rather Square

So unless any further outdoor emergencies come up (fingers crossed!), this is probably all the landscaping we’ll be doing for the rest of the summer. The new baby is scheduled to arrive soon, and we’re focusing on getting ready for that by finishing the nursery and the toddler’s bedroom.

How does your August garden/yard/lawn/trees grow?

August 14, 2014

Yew and me: A landscaping renovation story

By on July 2, 2014

Remember the huge yew bushes in our front yard that we talked about in our last landscaping post? Well, we did a little work on them recently…

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

You may recall that last summer I spent a lot of time trying to trim their out-of-control growth. Aside from contorting myself into knots trying to reach some spots, I was frustrated to see that these bushes were pretty bare underneath and getting sparse on the tops too. We wondered if they could be as old as our house (92 years) – it’s hard to say. But it’s obvious that they are reaching the limits of their aesthetic qualities.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

In addition to looking scraggly, the yews were proving to be a bit of a safety hazard. They obstructed the view from our entry pathway and living room windows – and with small children playing outside the house, it’s important that we’re able to keep a quick eye on them.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Plus, they just made our house look like it had an overgrown beard. Our harsh winter dumped a lot of snow on the yews and really crushed them down at times, but they are apparently engineered for survival at any cost, because they bounced back once the weather warmed up. I knew I’d have to do something about them this year, but hanging out the window again with heavy-duty shears didn’t sound too appealing. So we came to the conclusion that it was time to say farewell to the yew beard.

One option was to have them professionally removed (roots and all), which would cost between $500 and $700. But we ultimately decided that this cost is not in our budget right now. And digging up the yews ourselves is not a task we’d want to DIY, since these decades-old bushes have pretty extensive and solid root systems. I knew I’d largely be handling any yew removal on my own (with Laura on toddler-watch and fetus-growing duties), so I had to think about how much effort and knowledge a one-person amateur landscaper could take on.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

I did some extensive research on yews and found that they are good candidates for renovation pruning, which means that they can be rejuvenated by cutting them down nearly to the ground, and then they’ll grow back over several years. Not only did this sound doable, but it would give us a chance to see if the yews might look better with all-new (and smaller!) growth. So I made the decision to go ahead with this approach.

First, I assembled all my tools (a chainsaw, a reciprocating saw and heavy-duty loppers), and made sure they were clean and sharp.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

This landscaping project took me two days. Not only did I cut down eight huge yews, but then I had to clear out all the trunks and branches and other debris from our front yard afterward. Laura was able to document this process during the toddler’s nap (somehow she slept through the chainsaw roar!) as I started at one side of the house and worked my way across the front.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

It was easier to get the smaller branches first with my reciprocating saw and the loppers, and then use the chainsaw on the thicker trunks at the bottom.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Here’s a video of the chainsaw in action.

And once I chopped down every last bush, we were left with this aftermath.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

I piled all the cut branches and trunks in an out-of-the-way area behind our garden for now, while we decide what to do with them. Maybe we’ll rent a wood chipper to make some mulch? If not, I need to figure out how to dispose of them (they’re too big for our village’s yardwaste bag pickup).

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Here’s our front yard after all the debris was cleared away. It feels like our house can breathe a little more easily now without its big bushy beard.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

It’s a little surreal to be able to stand in the space where these giant bushes used to be.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

I counted the rings of the stumps, and it looks like these yews were actually about 60 years old. So not quite as old as our house, but they’ve still been around for a very long time. I can only imagine what kind of root systems must be under our front yard!

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

Now we wait to see how the yews will react to their clean close shave. These bushes grow pretty slowly, but a smaller, gentler greenery border in front of our house is our goal anyway.

In the meantime, we’ve suddenly got a lot more space in our front yard to do some landscaping! We don’t have a lot of time to allocate to this at the moment, but I’ve been brainstorming some small quick things we can do this summer to get this space ready for more major changes down the road.

Yew Renovation Pruning | Rather Square

I’ve got some ideas that I’ve already started to implement, so I’ll be back with a follow-up post soon. Have a great Fourth of July, readers!

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July 2, 2014

Spring landscaping in the garden

By on May 22, 2014

Like for most of the U.S. this year, our Midwest spring season arrived later than usual. But after a long long long winter, we’re doing some spring landscaping, and our backyard and all its garden loveliness has finally sprung back to life.

Our Garden Spring 2014 | Rather Square

I’ve talked before about the very beautiful ornamental garden that came with our house… and how John and I are pretty much novices when it comes to maintaining it. We don’t have black thumbs or anything, but we’re more well versed in the art of vegetable and herb gardening than in flower and shrub upkeep. I took some notes during a quick “garden orientation” meeting with the previous owner (who spent a lot of time and attention on these plants) so we do have some information like plant names and a few care instructions. But I was writing so fast and so much that my notes are kind of jumbled.

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

We’ve done some online research into specific individual plants when we think they need immediate attention. Last summer, John trimmed our boxwood and yew shrubs.

Boxwood Shrubs | Rather Square

Trimming Yew Shrubs | Rather Square

And I’ve done a few posts on our Annabelle hydrangea, which I cut back last fall after reading that would help them grow bushier and more compact.

Annabelle Hydrangea | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas | Rather Square

Hydrangeas in the Snow | Rather Square

Spring came late this year (our brave daffodils bloomed despite an April snowfall), so one relatively mild weekend last month, we went out into the garden to assess its post-winter condition. It didn’t look too bad, but we wanted to clean and trim around the plants while they were still mostly dormant. There were a lot of leftover fallen autumn leaves, broken branches, and dead growth to clear out, so we did a bit of spring landscaping.

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

Last summer we had a ton of healthy sage, but I also noticed at the time that several areas of this sprawling plant looked dead. So this spring I cut everything back to the main stem. Sage stems are pretty woody, so I used small hand pruners for this. Hopefully some new growth will emerge from the remaining plant as it gets warmer.

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

The previous owner had told us to “vigorously” prune the smoke tree that grows up next to our dining nook window. So John took that literally and cut quite a bit off before winter set in last year. You can see in the photos below how he pruned everything to the bottom of the window. We waited several months to see if we’d been too vigorous and killed this tree – but luckily, it seems to be growing back nicely. Not as full as before, but hopefully it will fill in again as time goes on.

Pruining a Smoke Tree | Rather Square

John also cut back this other small tree (called a burning bush, because it turns red in the fall) on the other end of the garden next to the garage. It too has been rejuvenating as the weather’s gotten warmer.

Pruning a Burning Bush | Rather Square

And of course, I’ve been monitoring our four Annabelle hydrangea bushes after I pruned them last fall. I posted an update recently when I noticed tiny leaf buds appearing. It’s been a month since then, and these bushes have gotten really leafy! It’s a great sign, but it remains to be seen if we’ll see any actual flowers appear. Fingers crossed…

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

There are way too many other plants and flowers to mention, but overall things seem to be growing very well. In fact, the garden seems to be on autopilot – most if not all of what the previous owner planted are perennials (meaning they grow back year after year), so they’ve just come back on their own without much help from us. So far we’ve seen lots of pretty colors and leafy growth, such as tulips, daffodils, brunnera (“false forget-me-nots”), lilacs, hostas, chives, ferns, alliums, rhododendrons, and more. Here are some recent snapshots from the last few weeks:

Our Spring Garden | Rather Square

We were able to clear out the debris around plants and trim off any dead wood in a couple of afternoons. Not too bad, and we even had a little helper to fill up our yard bags. She took her spring landscaping assistant job very seriously and collected every discarded twig, leaf or clipping in sight.

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

But we do have one much larger landscaping project we are planning to tackle before summer sets in. It concerns the giant yew shrubs in our front yard that form a thick impenetrable border around our sunroom. Remember these?

Trimming Yew Shrubs | Rather Square

They pretty much take up the entire front yard, stopping about two feet from the sidewalk (and we’ve got a few hostas and roses currently in this narrow strip of yew-free yard). John had a hard time trimming the yews last year, and they are really overgrown and out of control. So we’ve got some significant changes we want to make to this part of our yard. We’ll talk more details about this in an upcoming post (UPDATE: take a look at our yew renovation!), but here’s a sneak preview of our plans:

Spring Landscaping | Rather Square

So, how does your garden grow this spring?

(linked on Remodelaholic)

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May 22, 2014