Monthly Archives: September 2015

Can this ficus be saved?

Several months ago I inherited a large ficus benjamina plant from a coworker who left the company. It stood on a bookshelf on top of his desk and leaned over into his space. It looked miserable. One evening after work, Eric and I came to my office armed with a new, larger pot, fresh potting soil, and a tarp.  The after-hours office was dark, with only a few emergency lights on. Why I didn’t find a light switch, I don’t know, but the dim light seemed appropriate for masterminding an escape, which, in fact, we were. It truly was a rescue operation.

Leaves of ficus benjamina (weeping fig)

Ficus Benjamina [Source:]

We cut the ficus from its mooring: It had been shackled to the cubicle wall with a coat hanger and a chain of paper clips. Then we removed the outer pot … which revealed an inner pot … and yet another inner pot. I had never seen this technique before, but I’m pretty sure repotting a plant doesn’t mean throwing it, pot and all, into another pot. Twice. I hoped the smell of rot and stagnant water would dissipate by morning.

I wish I’d been able to take photos of the operation, but cameras aren’t allowed where I work. Eric and I elevated the newly repotted tree on a step stool in the corner of my cubicle, behind my computer monitor, so it would have enough height to rise above the cube walls. When I came to work the next morning, the tree thanked me for saving it by relaxing its graceful six-foot canopy over the corners of four adjoining cubicles. Suddenly I had the garden cube of the third floor. And—I got to work under a tree! Who gets to do that?

Drafting table and stool on a patio under a large tree

Not my desk or tree!

Unfortunately, my garden-cube days were to be short-lived. A few months later I was reassigned to another project, and had to move to a different building a mile down the street. When I saw my new digs, I knew the ficus wouldn’t work out. There wasn’t a good place to put it, and the light was too dim to support plant life. Eric and I loaded the tree into our utility trailer and brought it home, where it took up residence on the dining room table and proceeded to drop leaves everywhere to show me how unhappy it was.

Ficus trees are finicky plants: Moves (much less trailer trips down the I-5) and changes in environment throw them into a leaf-shedding tizzy. As its limbs drooped in defeat and it cried leafy tears all over my dining room, I saw that the tree was still very unbalanced from its time chained to the wall.

Ficus tree growing in one direction

Leaning to the right

I decided to attempt a fix. What did I have to lose? Out came the coated wire and stakes. I really had no idea what I was doing … all I knew was that I’d successfully encouraged a limb of our Mt. Fuji cherry tree to change directions by wrapping it with wire, bonsai-style. So I would wire around a few ficus limbs and used Velcro gardening tape (awesome stuff) to secure the limbs to stakes.

Ficus limb wound with wire

Grow this way, please.

Ficus limb wound with wire and staked

I said THIS way!

Ficus with wire-wrapped limbs attached to stakes

Resistance is futile

I even taped a couple of pennies to one limb to convince it to hang in a certain direction. My two cents, if you will.

Two pennies taped to ficus branch

My two cents

I imagine the poor plant feels like a kid with new braces. Ouch! I gingerly pruned a few branches on the heavier side, but it was hard to make myself chop off good foliage when so many leaves were already on the floor. You can see that its silhouette is slightly more balanced now.

Ficus with limbs repositioned with wire

A little improvement

Eric brought the schoolhouse desk up from downstairs. For some reason, I have always envisioned it as a plant stand … and so it has become one. It’s in rough shape and could use some love, but that’ll be another project for another day.

The ficus is in the north-facing dining room window, where it will like the light. It might not like the breeze from the nearby furnace vent. I hope it will gradually become accustomed to our coolish house, which we keep in the mid-to-upper 60s during heating season. Ficus benjamina is the official plant of Bangkok, Thailand, but our house is distinctly un-Bangkok-like. My previous office, on the other hand, was a nap-inducing, tropical 74 degrees. I think it will adjust eventually, because another, much smaller, healthy ficus thrives just a few feet away.

Ficus tree sitting on old-fashioned schoolhouse desk

The schoolhouse desk finds its calling

Our dining room is large, but this tree, which was my protective buddy at work, really feels like a bit of a monster now that it’s in our house. It’s lost so many leaves in the month that it’s been with us that it looks visibly skimpier than when we brought it home. Hang in there, ficus … work with me. I’m doing the best I can for you.

View of dining room from outside at night

It’s a jungle in there

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


Crazy cat lady lives here

Our front porch is jealous. With our new side porch garnering so much attention, the poor front porch is feeling neglected, and no wonder. It’s a mess.

Eric partially rebuilt this porch in 2011, and for a brief moment it was our shining star … until it got upstaged by the next project. With all of our projects, you’d think our entire house would be shiny by now. You’d be wrong. We tend to focus so intently on one pet project that we let other things slide. Or we miss a maintenance window of opportunity, and down the slippery slope we go. It’s so easy to lose our balance.

Front view of porch with plantings and rockery

Overgrown plants and a bare bulb

Sadly, the front porch has become the latest sorry sight. It certainly does not say, “Welcome to our home.” It says—go ahead, I’ve heard it before— “A crazy cat lady lives here.” I can’t deny it, but I’ll point out that Eric’s also a crazy cat guy. Crazy or not, our porch needs improvement.

Two cats sit on a dirty front porch

Checkers and Curveball deplore the porch conditions, including the hanging gutter.

Normally, every spring I clean the winter detritus off of the porch, but I skipped that task this year, and conditions just went to hell in a handbasket. The porch is covered, so it only gets wet in bad storms, but the southwest wind blows dirt and debris in. The white porch swing and wicker chair collect sooty black dust, an urban byproduct of nearby freeways, railroads, and airports. Yuck.

Fine sooty dust on the porch swing.

This stuff gets on everything.

Plus, the porch holds three cat shelters, food, and water for our homeless feline friends. We have about half a dozen regular visitors. The kitties are not tidy and they expect full housekeeping service. These cat supplies are nonnegotiable. They will stay, but the chalets hadn’t been cleaned out since last winter, and they were filthy.

Instead of an attractive Craftsman light fixture (I have the original fixture somewhere in the basement), we have an old receptacle with a built-in outlet, into which we plug an extension cord to heat the kitty chalets in the winter and to power landscape tools in the summer, since there’s no outdoor outlet in the front of the house. Somehow, we need to find a better solution.

Bare light bulb on porch ceiling

Classy, right?

The obvious place to start is to give the porch a thorough cleaning. Then I thought … after pressure washing it, why not paint the floor red to match the side porch? While I’m at it, why not paint the ceiling haint blue, as I’ve wanted to do for years? You don’t see a lot of haint blue in the Pacific Northwest. I think it’s time to change that.

You don’t know about haint blue? Southern Living Magazine says:

Blue porch ceilings are prevalent all throughout the South. Pale blue is not only visually expansive, but it’s also a ghost buster of sorts. The Gullah culture of the Lowcountry believes that spirits, known as “haints,” can’t cross water. Using light blue paint to symbolize water, the Gullah people applied the shade to porch ceilings and doors preventing evil spirits from entering.

Along with warding off bad spirits, the blue ceiling supposedly repels bugs and spiders, but that’s probably attributed to old paint being made with indigo and lime, not the color. Not wanting haints, bugs, or spiders, it sounds like a good idea to me, plus I love a nice robin’s egg blue and I think it would look great over my porch swing. Although, how could we improve on what we have!

On what I figured was one of our last summery weekends, we hauled everything off the porch and onto the front lawn. I opened up the kitty chalets and removed the heating pads, threw all the cat bedding in the wash, and swept out the chalets.

Two A-frame cat shelters

Eric built these cute cat shelters

Eric hooked up the pressure washer and gave the porch a good bath, top to bottom. We realized that pressure washing would not be enough to prep the porch for stain and paint. We (Eric) will have to rent a sander for the floor, and the ceiling will have to be scraped. Ugh. My neck hurts already.

Man pressure washing a front porch

Eric playing with water

Paint-chipped porch floor boards

It’s called patina

Then it was my turn. I proceeded to blast away at the chair and swing cushions. I spent considerable time blasting the rug, as well, but by the time I was ready to flip it over, I decided that the water I was consuming might cost as much as a new rug, and gave up. I put the cushions on the back deck to drain and dry in the sun.

Outdoor rug haning from sawhorses

Rug gets a bath

Overnight, it poured rain. I dragged the dripping cushions back to the front porch to dry. The sun came out.

When everything was finally dry (enough), we put the porch back in order. Over the summer we had unplugged the heated cat beds, but now that nights are getting cooler, we plugged them back in. These inflatable Lectro-Soft heated pads are minimally heated until pressure is applied by a cat, then they heat to a safe, comfy level. They are rated for outdoor use, and cats LOVE them. The hole in the back wall, covered in felt, is an escape hatch.

Wooden A-frame cat shelter with heated pad

The fronts drop down to allow cleaning

We decided the rug would do for another winter, and found that the rainstorm had done a good job of rinsing it.

Staining and painting will have to wait for another day. I hope to get it done this fall, as surely there will be some sunny days ahead. Good weather usually holds through mid-October, but all bets are off this crazy year. So, the porch is cleaner, but not yet pretty. How far will I get before bad weather stops me?

Black cat lies on a clean porch floor

Lacy approves

I also trimmed back some of the plants and added a glowing amber mum. The color helps a little, don’t you agree? And Eric put the gutter back up just in time to beat the rainstorm.

How many cats can you find in this photo? (Click to enlarge.)

Front of house with orange mum in planter

A little tidier

The next morning when Eric went out to fill the cats’ bowls, our friends Dash, Dot, and Curveball each emerged from a chalet, toasty warm. I think they were waiting for us to open their B&B for the season!

Tabby cat snoozes in A-frame cat shelter

Sweet Dot Morse likes her clean chalet


Tabby cat sleeping in a kitty bed on a wicker chair

Brother Dash Morse takes a catnap

Side porch epilogue

Recently, when Eric made one of his regular weekend stops at the Ace Hardware near our house, one of the staff complimented him on the finished side porch, which she often drives past on her way to work. A man standing nearby overheard and asked Eric if he was the guy who had built the porch on the house in the next block. Eric said he was. Then the man introduced himself as the city building inspector. Dum-de-dum-dum. We had built the porch without a construction permit, although we knew we required one. We like to live on the edge like that. It’s hard to hide a construction project when you live on a corner. We had initially thought about building it in components that we could assemble by dark of night to avoid detection by authorities. (“What, that porch? Oh, it’s always been here! We just changed the siding.”) But, as the project dragged on for two summers, I fully expected to see a Stop Work Order slapped on our wall one day. That didn’t happen, so we assumed we’d just flown under the city’s radar.

Mr. Inspector proceeded to tell Eric that he’d been watching his progress all along, actually walking up to the porch, and did Eric know that he’d built the porch about three times beyond code? Yes, Eric did, and he explained that we will never have a porch collapse disaster that will appear on the evening news. Eric and Mr. Inspector had a nice chat about how the low railing could be raised to code height (although that would totally spoil the design), and how the porch really isn’t exactly attached to the house, and how it was really just a matter of rebuilding what was originally there … and they came to the conclusion that the porch is fine and dandy as is, unpermitted.

The moral of this story is, I suppose, that the city is watching, and if you try to hide a two-year construction job that faces the street, you’d better be building it right. Awesome job, dear.

Four cats in front yard with labels

Did you find all four cats?

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

I died and went to salvage heaven

When a friend at work sent me a link to EarthWise, a salvage store in Seattle, I hopped right on it, because who wouldn’t want to check out architectural salvage online instead of writing technical documents? I had heard about EarthWise, but we’d never been there. So of course, that very Saturday Eric and I made a bee-line to check it out in person, because who wouldn’t want to check out architectural salvage instead of doing household chores?

We were not disappointed. A garden of salvaged delights lay before us, shimmering under this summer’s unrelenting sun.

An assortment of architectural and household salvage items arranged outdoors

Look at all that great stuff!

Where to begin? Eric and I wandered slowly through the outer courtyard. Interesting, oddball, and sometimes unidentifiable items beckoned at every turn. Succulents grew in anything that resembled a container, left to survive on whatever water fell from the sky … which for months has been nothing.

The candy-colored sink display was the first thing to catch my eye. Like Necco wafers. Yum.

Six pastel wall-mount sinks sit on a table in the sun

Pastel sinks in the sun

Bins of chunky chains, rows of rads, stacks of street signs begged to be rummaged through. Rust and chipped paint everywhere. To some, this might look like junk, but to DIY old house people, or anyone with a camera, it’s art! Look at that character and texture. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Do you know what this is? I do, because I have something similar in my basement.

A rusty schoolhouse desk side support

Before my time

It’s the side support for an old-fashioned schoolhouse desk—the kind where the seat of the front desk is attached to the writing surface of the desk in back. Here’s mine, which Eric kindly dug out of the basement clutter:

Old-time two-piece school desk

Could use some TLC

A friend gave me this desk because she never used it. I have not used it either. It has sat in my basement for nearly three decades. Pity … it’s an interesting piece. The wrought iron sides say “Aim High” and “Time Flies.” I particularly like the cobweb design. (Click the photo to see it.)

Where was I? Oh yes … back to the salvage. Hey, there’s my mom’s first washing machine! Her admonitions to stay away from that wringer left me with a lifetime fear of getting my hair ripped out. This one had a lever on the side to adjust for different fabrics. For delicates, you simply set it for less time because so they don’t have to endure as much churning.

White wringer washer from the 1950s

Not before my time

I peeked into a series of small rooms that lined one side of the courtyard. The first was chock full of sinks.

Porcelain sinks of all kinds

Sink city

The next room, newel posts.

Vintage newel posts and railings

Old newels

I stumbled upon a box of blue midcentury tiles. These tiles are thinner than today’s tiles, and hard to find. Then I looked up, and—holy cow—an entire room of vintage tiles!

My favorite room was this one with its display—no, art installation!—of heating vents. Now I’m trying to figure out how I could use these intricate vents. My house probably had them originally, but it has had floor vents since before I moved in.

Vintage metal heating vents in many patterns

Such great patterns!

Inside the main building we found the expected rows of windows and doors and salvaged flooring. I was bedazzled by the light fixtures. Now that I’ve had a chance to study this photo, I may want to go back and get one for the bedroom, where a bare bulb has protruded from the ceiling since we removed the old shade.

Glass ceiling lamps displayed in a salvage shop

The beigey one, top center, is similar to our living room and dining room lights.

Isn’t this just the prettiest little toilet?

Porcelain toilet with decorative beading

Can a toilet be charming?

I have a bracket like these in the attic. It holds my hurricane oil lamp … but I don’t have a good place to mount it.

Ornate wrought iron lamp brackets

Don’t have to buy these … got one

In the jewelry department, I drooled over all the doorknobs. The white porcelain ones remind me of the frosted cookies that my great-grandma kept in a jar on her kitchen table.

More jewelry: antique door knobs and their fancy escutcheon plates.

Nearby were several shelves of mortise locksets, most of which had been carelessly painted over. I love the colors, but if you look closely, the ones on the right are gorgeous Eastlake designs. First thing I’d do is to remove that paint and let the brass oxidize.

Unfortunately, we don’t need any of these things, but Eric and I get excited when we see a whole lot of similar shapes in one place … there’s something about the repetition of forms and the vintage colors that makes me want to buy the whole collection, or at least photograph it.

We didn’t bring anything home with us except photographs—this trip. We already have enough stuff around here to open our own salvage shop. But it was sure fun to look!