Archive for the 'the outdoors' Category

Spring is coming?

We’ve had a very mild winter here in southern Wisconsin with only a handful of big snowstorms all season. So it was a little surprising to wake up to a big wet March snowfall the other day. The snow clung to every little branch and made our yard look like a winter wonderland.

The driveway.

The view of the pond from the middle of the driveway.

The backyard.

Do you see what I see?

That is right just after the snow storm passed we saw our first geese on the pond.

They look bewildered like hey where is the open water?! This group was surely just passing through but that means in no time we’ll be seeing our first pair of mating geese and hearing them defend the both ponds as theirs. The first sign of waterfowl on the ponds each spring is always exciting!


The conifers we planted out front have provided great winter interest. They look especially nice with a thin layer of snow accentuating their branches.

With the warm temperatures the snow is melting fast. I love sunny days when there is snow on the ground!


This winter we’ve had an extra special treat with two male pheasants calling our yard home. This is only the second time this had happened. Two years ago we had a male hang out in our yard over the winter.

We would catch him sunning himself on our front steps every morning but unfortunately he didn’t last long. Our dog found a crime scene of blood and feathers in the snow a few weeks later. : ( But this year we bought some food for the pheasants and have been feeding them where they were scratching the ground for food. They are skittish creatures and nearly every day Flannel Man has scared them out of the brush when he walks the dog on the pond and I will sometimes see them as I’m leaving the driveway in the morning. I managed to get a few pictures of them through the trees as they crossed the lower part of our driveway one weekend.

(Cropped to give you a better view of the details. Not very good photography but they are the only shots I’ve ever gotten of pheasants on our property so I wanted to share.)

They are so funny to watch when they run. Their head bobs back and forth every time they take a step.


What signs of spring have you seen lately?


My New Favorite Magazine & Our New Planting Zone

You guys it’s like Christmas over here! Why? Because Erin just informed me the USDA has just come out with some new planting zone classifications and we have been bumped up from a Zone 4 to a Zone 5!! What no one else sees that as a big deal? Well it is because that opens up a whole new world of plants I can pick from. Between Zone 5 and Zone 4 there is a huge drop off in plant selection. Until I got into gardening I had no idea the limited options that are available to gardeners up here in the frigid north…OK it’s not that bad but seriously it’s hard being in Zone 4. It’s so frustrating looking through plant catalogs and gardening magazines when everything I like is Zone 5 or higher. This is how it often goes when I open my Fine Gardening Magazines:

    I open the magazine and some across a gorgeous garden picture. The title reads “Hardy Shade Garden.”

    “OMG that is perfect!” I think. “I have lots of shade and I need hardy plants for our colder climate.”

    I get excited and start to think of where I could incorporate those plants into my garden.

    Then I read through the fine print of what kind of plants they are.

    Hmm…a bunch of names I don’t recognize but I’m still learning so that could be the reason.

    So I skip the scientific names and go right to the zone range listed for each plant.

    Every single thing is listed for zone 5 or higher!

    I get annoyed that I can’t own a single plant pictured and have to stop reading the magazine.

    Repeat every month as gorgeous garden magazines fill my mail box.


Why tempt myself by reading about awesome plants that won’t grow in my area? I know, I know I could have tried zone 5 plants out before and see if I had any luck with them but I’m a new gardener and I’m not confident enough that I could keep them alive. That’s not to say I haven’t accidentally bought a couple zone 5 perennials before. For the most part they have all survived (what can I say it’s survival of the fittest over here in my garden) but I tried to stick to perennials I knew could survive many winters in my zone. Garden centers like to buy outside of the zone they are in and often the tags are pretty liberal in what zones they say the plant can grow in. You have to be smarter than the tag or find someone at the garden center to tell you how likely that plant is to survive/thrive in your zone (that is at the real nurseries you can find knowledgeable people not at Home Depot all of you fellow renovators).

Note: If you don’t know your planting zone check out the USDA’s website and enter in your zipcode.


The icing on the cake is for Christmas I asked for a subscription to a gardening magazine that I’ve fallen in love with after only one magazine! It’s a new state specific magazine that just started this month called Wisconsin Gardening. They write about local garden topics, photograph beautiful gardens around the state, suggest the best performing vegetables for your area, show how to design flower beds with plants you can actually grow , and give out seasonal advice that is timely to your area (national magazines try to do this but because they cover so many areas it’s often past the ideal time to do these things by the time I get the magazine).

This new magazine has breathed a whole new life in my itch to garden. In each issue they have separate columns for each area of the state the north, the southwest and central, and the southeast which more or less is how the state is divided by zone. They have recruited some prominent figures in the gardening community including Edward Lyon, director of Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus; Lisa Johnson, Dane County UW-Extension employee who trains master gardeners and is a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Garden Talk;” Sharon Morrisey, who appears weekly on FOX6-TV’s “Wake-Up News,” writes the garden calendar for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and trains master gardeners in the Milwaukee area. In this first issue they discuss how to create a four season garden, hot new plant varieties, how to build and use raised beds, unusual tomatoes to start from seed, organic lawn care, landscape design with hostas, pruning, invasive plants, and protecting ancient trees. It has something for every gardeners’ interest. I can’t wait for the next issue to come!

If you’re a gardener in Wisconsin I highly suggest you go check this magazine out. If you’re in a different state you should check out the State-by-State Gardening website to see if they have a magazine for your state.


In other non-garden related news I’ve added another thing to juggle in my busy schedule. Studying! I’m studying for a big professional test I’m hoping to take in April. A co-worker and good friend of mine is studying with me. We started right after the first of the year and have been studying 6 days a week! We have to learn/know/be fast at so much material in a short amount of time it’s mind boggling. It’s essentially 9 years of my life crammed into an 8 hour test. With the bonus of stuff I’ve never learned but I guess am supposed to have to be a well rounded engineer. The 3″ thick study book we’re using suggests we study for 300 hours before the test. 300 hours in 3.5 months! We’re doing about 16 hours a week right now so we’ll be more at 250 hours by the time the test comes around. I think that’s all I can do so hopefully it’s enough.

For the past 4 weeks my schedule has been three nights a week stay after work studying until 9pm. Two nights a week stay after work studying until 8pm, run home, let the dog out, change, and go work out with my mother in-law until 10:30pm. Saturdays and Sunday mornings I try to squeeze in all of my cleaning around the house, running errands, blog writing, and working on the remodel. Sunday afternoon we meet at a library and study for another 4-5 hours. This schedule doesn’t leave much room for anything else like say…relaxing. I’m eating every lunch and dinner at work, seeing Flannel Man even more rarely than I did before, the dog is left alone way too much, and I can barely keep up with the mess that is living in a construction zone. Of course I’m putting way too much pressure on myself to pass because I don’t want to do this twice and once this is out of the way it opens up a whole new set of opportunities both professional and personal. If I don’t have a melt down before my test in mid-April it will be a small miracle.

Gardening 2011

This year I want to add a second set of pictures for the year. I dove deep into the hobby of gardening this year and though it isn’t the main focus of this blog I think homes and gardens go together hand and hand. It’s hard to break apart which pictures are home improvements and which are strictly gardening so if you want to see glimpses of the new fence flowerbed, the moss filled flagstone path, or my new gardening bench check out this post.


Ever since I started gardening I’ve been taking pictures of what I buy in the garage before I plant it along with recording the scientific name and other info in an Excel spreadsheet. I know all too many gardeners who can’t remember what plant they have because they didn’t record it so I’m going to do my best to keep a record of this stuff. Plus looking back at what size a plant started out could be fun especially with the conifers that can last for decades. So here is what I added to my garden this year…


To celebrate my birthday Flannel Man took me to Chicago to see the flower and garden show. We stayed overnight at a nice hotel within walking distance of Navy Pier where the show was at and had a delicious sushi dinner.


Mother’s Day weekend is the start of many plant sales in our area. I stopped by a nearby garden club sale and went to the yearly Olbrich Garden sale. Highlights include Hydrangea ‘Invincibelle Spirit’, ‘Chicagoland Green’ Boxwood, Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’, and Athyrium ‘Ghost’ fern.


This year we took a strong stance on the nasty invasive garlic mustard and pulled thousands of plants by hand. We bagged them up and labeled them as invasive plants and put them with our weekly trash pick-up.


I got a lot of great plants at low cost from two more local garden club sales. Some of my favorites from those sales were a white with pink spotted hellebore, white bleeding heart, white pulmonaria, and a yellow toad lily. I decided I really liked the look of the white flowers against the dark brown fence so most of them went into the new fence flowerbed.


My reconnaissance mission to a local nursery that specializes in rare conifers. I tried to not buy everything I could get my hands on. This is just a small sample of what he has.


Adding some more flowering shrubs to the edges of our yard. Quick Fire Hydrangea, Rhododendron ‘PJM Elite’ and ‘Golden Lights’, and an ice plant.


The big conifer buy of 2011! 7 nurseries and 18 plants later I was in heaven. I got a Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate’ that was left over from last season and priced to sell, a gorgeous ‘Golden Shadows’ dogwood, and two Tsuga canadensis (‘Geneva’ and ‘Brandleyi’) from the clearance section of a nursery.

The two clearance Tsuga weren’t looking too good as they were forgotten and barely maintained in the back corner of the parking lot they were kept. With only a small amount of new growth I convinced the nursery staff to give me even more of a discount if I took both of them off their hands as they had multiples of each type. Once home I carefully bare rooted them (which was my first time trying that technique) and they are looking great now. A couple of these questionable zone 4 Chamaecyparis did not survive but that is the beauty of having a one year warranty. I was able to take them back and get credit towards my next purchase.


New groundcover plants for the dog yard and some perennials for the fence flowerbed. I went to Home Depot for some tools but ended up walking out with some sale astilbie, hostas, and a fern. Then I picked up a silver sage and bush clematis from a nursery.


I went on a garden tour of three local gardens followed by a pot luck dinner made with ingredients from everyone’s gardens.


I went on my second garden tour of the year. This tour featured an amazing sustainable garden, the garden of a daylily connoisseur, and a Frank Lloyd Wright home.


Some late season plant buying thanks to a Groupon and some nursery reward points. More hostas, colorful sedium, a red Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass), a white Hakonechloa, and a snowberry bush.


I used the last of my nursery reward points in a very late season sale. Some ferns, late blooming anemone, and spring bulbs will make a nice addition to my shady beds.

Sophie in the Snow

Well the big snow storm came and went. We got 20″ of snow mixed with up to 40 mph winds which lead to some huge drifts. On my way home from work yesterday I had to drive through some snow drifts as tall as my car. Luckily, our house is more sheltered in the woods so our drifting wasn’t that bad. Our dog, Sophie, wasn’t too happy about the snow when I took her out today.

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One of her bathroom spots:
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(On our driveway.)

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With the dog safely inside Flannel Man and I worked on digging ourselves out. The ATV got stuck. A lot.
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Meanwhile I dug out the mailbox…
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shoveled the front stairs…
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and the back sidewalk.
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In deep snow like this remember to shovel out more than one exit in your house in case of an emergency. A family from my home town had a fire start in their house (lots of fireplaces used this time of year) and their young daughter almost got stuck in their house because she couldn’t get out the back door. And make sure to shovel out any gas vents around your house too.

Eventually we figured out the ATV got stuck less if I was sitting on the back. After two hours the pile of snow Flannel Man has been building was over 8′ tall and 30′ long. I hope we don’t get too much more snow because we don’t have anywhere else to put it!
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DIY Savings: Tree Removal

The cost of tree removal seems to be a popular question so I’ll do that next. My experience is that the cost can vary a lot depending on your area and on the way the tree needs to be cut down. If the tree can be cut down in one piece it will cost a lot less than if it needs to be taken down in pieces to avoid hitting anything. We have had to cut down three large trees so far (I’m not going to include the smaller dead trees we cut down since they were easily a DIY project and not something we’d consider hiring out).


First there was a tall hickory that was only 10 feet from the house and the shed. It was actually touching the power line that runs from the house over to the shed! I had wanted to cut it down ever since we moved in but it was a very nice tree and hickories are known to be very strong so we let it go. Then when we were determining the best location to put our geothermal loops we realized that the best location ran right where the hickory was. So we decided to cut it down. We made sure and do it before we built the fence in the backyard because the tree was so tall it spanned the whole side yard and would have hit the fence. To help make sure the tree fell where we wanted it to Papa Flannel brought over his bobcat.

You can see the future fence area that is exposed dirt in this picture:

When the geothermal loops were put in we had the backhoe driver remove the stump so there was no need for it to be ground out.


Last fall we cut down the other two trees. The big black walnut in the backyard was leaning toward the house and sandwiched between the new fence and an oak we wanted to save. We had to cut it down in lots of little pieces which meant getting our hands on a bucket lift. Fortunately, we had a family friend who is a farmer and let us rent one for only $100.

The other tree was a very rotten cherry tree that was leaning over our new fence. We couldn’t get the bucket lift near the tree like we had planned because of the uneven ground. So we tried using a pulley system and the bobcat to help direct which way it fell. That didn’t end well.

Luckily, it didn’t hit any of the posts and we were able to repair the fence with just some treated 2×4’s and new pickets. You can read more about how we cut down those two trees here.


Difficulty Level
Moderate – It doesn’t take many tools to do but it’s important to be careful. Everyone who was in the bucket lift was wearing safety harnesses for example. Both of our dads have a lot of experience cutting down trees so that was a big help too.


The quote we got for hiring someone to cut down the trees, dispose of the debris, and grind out the stumps:
Hickory = $800
Cherry = $800
Black Walnut = $1,500 (it costs more because it couldn’t be cut down in one piece)
$3,100 Total

Our costs:
Borrow a cherry picker from a friend = $100
Material to repair the fence = $125
$225 Total

DIY Savings = $2,875

We still have the stumps for the cherry and black walnut trees though. The cherry tree was in the woods so it’s no big deal and the black walnut stump is part of a flower bed I’d like to make so I was thinking of putting a big pot with annuals on top of it.

Our New Snow Clearing Toy

Two weekends ago was our first big storm with 1-2” of freezing rain followed by 10” of snow. Along with that we had 35 mph winds which resulted in blizzard warnings and weatherman encouraging people to stay inside all weekend. On the bright side it did leave a pretty coating on the trees and shrubs.

It may have been a crummy weekend but Flannel Man was excited to try out his new toy, an ATV with a plow. For the past two years he’s used our riding lawn mower with a small fixed plow. He got the plow for free from a co-worker who had it lying around in his barn. It was full of rust but Flannel Man sandblasted it, painted it, and modified it to fit the lawn mower. It worked OK but we were often stuck inside after a big storm because it didn’t have enough power to push the heavy snow. Luckily, we have a very nice neighbor who has two sheds full of snow clearing toys of his own and he would come clear off our driveway if he was home. Our neighbor is a truck driver though so he is often gone for a week at a time so he wasn’t always around in the winter.

We even inherited a small snow blower from Flannel Man’s grandmother last year but it could barely handle the heavy snow so you had to move very slow. It took forever to clear off both of our driveways. It didn’t help that we have three locations where our driveways meet the street (our main driveway is a semi-circle) and the town plows make a big pile of snow as they pass by. So this year Flannel Man began looking for a used ATV he could use to plow the snow. He found it very difficult in our area to find one that would work. Every time he thought he found “the one” the seller had just sold it or they wanted too much for it and wouldn’t negotiate. When November came it really hit home that he better buy one fast or get ready to shovel (we had given Papa Flannel the snow blower since his broke)! On his drive to work he saw an ATV plow for sale out on someone’s front yard and bought it for only $100. So now we had a plow but nothing to attach it to.

Then one Saturday I woke up to “Do you want to go on an eight hour road trip to Indiana?” Apparently he was searching through Craigslist in nearby cities to see if they had a better selection of ATVs and found someone in Indiana that was posting on the Chicago board. So we hoped in the truck and headed off taking the dog with us. It ended up being well worth the trip because he got a bigger, nicer ATV than he’d planned for a great price. There were a few minor fixes he had to make (the electric start switch was broken for one) but with the help of some friends he got it up and working. Finally, he installed plates to hold a winch and the plow and he was ready to go.

This new snow removal rig is slick! It takes fraction of the time to clear both of the driveways and has so much more power he can really pile up the snow. Plus it helps that it’s actually fun to drive. I’m pretty sure I saw a smile under that face mask. Now I just need to learn how to drive a manual ATV…maybe I’ll wait until spring.

From Logs to Lumber

So you might have been wondering what we did with the trees we cut down last fall.

The medium sized branches Papa Flannel cut up and used for fire wood in their wood burning boiler. The small unusable pieces we hauled out to the pond in the winter and tried to burn but the pieces were still too green. Burning FAIL.

Instead we added them to our brush pile behind the fence which is now the home to lots of critters. Which helps offset the homes we probably destroyed clearing out that brush for the fenced in yard so it all works out in the end. But trust me it was not fun hauling that big brush pile all over the place in the deep snow.

The big pieces we intended to use so they have been sitting on the driveway to our shed for the past year. We painted the ends to help keep them from rotting.

I refused to let them sit out there for another winter and finally started calling around for someone with a bandsaw. We could have taken them somewhere to be cut on a big table saw but using a bandsaw on site is ideal. Bandsaws have a thinner blade so there is less waste, are said to cut a straighter line, and you don’t have transport the heavy logs. The only downside is that bandsawing costs more but I found a local guy who does it on the side for a very reasonable price. Tow behind bandsaws like his cost roughly $10,000 so it’s understandable that is costs more. Plus he only charged us for the time the machine was running not the set up and take down time.

The bandsawer brought his father and Papa Flannel came out to help us move the heavy logs.

This part the cherry tree was pretty curved but it produced a surprising number of nice boards.

Check out the nifty hydraulic arm the bandsaw has! No wonder these things cost so much.

Now onto the largest piece of the black walnut. Look at the size of that thing!

For being such an old tree it was disappointing to see how little black there was. The oldest parts of the tree have the least amount of white whereas the younger branches are mostly white. The black center is desirable and the darker the color the better.

When we got the center Flannel Man had two 3″ slabs cut so he can make gun stocks out of them. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited he was about this.

This shot was taken while they were cutting that last log. The fine dust shows how little waste there is with each cut. Considering how many boards we got out those nine logs that is a small dust pile!

As they try to get down to a wider part of the tree there are a few cuts with natural edges. They can be used as is (as they dry the bark will fall off) or you can have the ends cut to make them more useable. We just decided to have them cut while we had a bandsaw there to do it.

Look at all the lumber we got out of those logs! It’s hard to tell but that’s a four foot tall pile.

We ran out of 1″x2″ spacers so the bigger slabs are on the trailer for now.

And here’s the bark ends that won’t go to waste. Our co-workers were happy to take them for fire wood.

Now we just need to figure out how to dry it all! Sitting in our un-heated shed it would take close to 5 years to dry so we’re looking to dry them in a kiln. They would take 6 months to dry in a standard kiln and about a year to dry in a solar kiln. Solar kilns are preferred because the wood dries slower which causes less warping and splitting.

Like I said before Flannel Man plans to carves some gun stocks out of the 3″ black walnut pieces. I want to make some nightstands out of the cherry to match our cherry bed so I had some 2″ slabs cut for the legs. I also want to make a bench for our entry out of some of the black walnut pieces that have both black and white coloring. That tree was between 50-60 years old. It was there long before our house was built and had a huge presence in our back yard so I want it to have a presence in our house since we had to cut it down. I’m not sure what we’ll do with the rest of the lumber but we have at least a year to figure it out.

The whole process was really exciting to see board after board come out of those logs. It took 1 1/2 hours to cut everything so it only cost us $85. Considering all the nice lumber we got out of it I’d say that’s a good deal!

This is the story of two twenty something newlyweds who are learning to adjust to life in their first house, a 1973 fixer-upper.
DIY Savings