Friday, October 15, 2010

Several Fires Burning

I haven't posted in awhile, but we've been plenty busy with backyard projects.   We seem to have several projects going at once-- always something I vow not to do.  Alas, nothing is completed yet, and the backyard looks more torn up than ever.  But I do feel that we're making progress (albeit slowly).

I've been concentrating on this area in our patio. 

It was dominated by the over-sized banana tree and the ubiquitous agapanthus you seem to find in every yard around here.  I actually like agapanthus in moderation, but I've already pulled out a dozen, or so, scattered throughout the yard and there are still so many left.  It was quite a chore pulling up the incredible amount of agapanthus roots.

So we went from lushness to tada...a big mess.

I know it looks a little barren, but I'm not going to miss the banana tree, which after the first frost turns into a bunch of dead withered leaves. (Apparently you aren't supposed to cut these off until after any chance of frost has passed, so you're stuck with them.)  For half the year the tree looks hideous and the other half it attracts bees and makes a sticky mess.  We also discovered it was starting to grow underneath our siding. 

I've finished the initial clean-up and now the real fun begins. 

There's nothing more exciting than a blank expanse of quality soil.  I can't wait to get my fingers dirty.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some Progress with the Kids' Veggie Garden

It's so exciting (and daunting) to have an empty garden barrel just begging to be filled with plants.

I have three of these, which I'm going to put in the kids' vegetable garden.  We weren't that impressed with the garden designer's plan, so we're coming up with our own.  (So much for our raffle prize.) Revamping this little area just got an unexpected jump start when these barrels recently went on sale. 

I've cleared out most of the plants we want rid of-- mainly some overgrown rose bushes and a lackluster banana tree.  Despite their beautiful flowers, I thought the rose bushes were just a little bit too inhospitable for a kids' area. 

Each of our kids will have a barrel to call their own. Obviously, I'll have to give the little ones some added guidance, but my 4-year-old is stoked to pick out what veggies to grow in his barrel.  He's leaning towards carrots (which he refuses to eat-- go figure) and strawberries.  I'll have to research what kind of edibles can be grown alongside each other.  Since growing edibles is new to me, I have no idea about the different soil requirements, etc.

I'm much more comfortable picking out the ornamental plants for the area.  I want some color, so I'm thinking of some salvias and lavender. 

Hopefully this is a project I can squeeze in here and there while the little ones are napping.  I'd like to get most of it planted in the next couple of weeks.  We'll see...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mum's the Word

I rarely go to Home Depot for plants, but I ventured over there today.  (It's the only nursery that I can actually take the two little ones since they have shopping carts, rather than the flatbed wagons.  I would love to try balancing my twins on one of those.)  But I digress.  I couldn't believe they were selling mums for fifty cents apiece.  Wow!  (I went to Whole Foods later in the day and saw the same plants going for five dollars.  OK-- maybe no shock there-- but still.)

I'm not even a huge fan of mums, but I stocked up.  For a mere $3.50 I now have plants to brighten my yard during the awkward autumn months.  But way more importantly, I got cheap entertainment for the three kids.  My little girl spent a good 45 minutes moving the plants from one place to another, before settling on the stroller.

Then, when my son came home from preschool, we spent an hour planting them (not always where I envisioned, but I got to love his enthusiasm).  Best three bucks I've spent in a long time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No Go with the Angel's Trumpet

Don't you hate it when you think you've found the perfect plant for a difficult spot, and it turns out to be poisonous.  I'm looking for a large shrub or small tree with either colorful or interesting foliage, and maybe if I'm lucky, even some flowers.

I thought an Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia) would fit the bill:

Photo by  Carol Foil

But alas, according to my trusty Sunset Western Garden Book all parts are poisonous if ingested.  The little ones are getting better, but I still can't trust them completely.  (Just today they were ripping off random vegetation on our walk and popping pieces in their mouths.)

Here's the area we want to revamp.  The cornerstone plant will replace our crazy banana tree.

I actually don't mind the banana tree, even if the banana pods are a little funky-looking, but it gets so ratty in the winter (looks completely dead with the first hint of frost), and it attracts way too many bees.  My four-year-old will miss it, but this is my domain-- the grown-up patio.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Little Patch of Green

Our initial plan was to rip out all of the grass in our backyard (there's not much), and replace it with wood chips or some other soft surface for under our play structure.  I'm beginning to reevaluate that.  We're still going with wood chips under most of the structure-- one of my little ones is a seriously bold climber and she's already taken a few tumbles, so padding is a must for my sanity-- but I think we'll leave a small patch of grass.

I used to wonder what's the point of such a small lawn, like the one pictured above.  But a little green really does soften the yard and help bring it all together.  Besides, we'll need a place to pitch a tent for backyard camp-outs, or an open expanse for a couple of cartwheels when the kids get a little bigger.

Image credit: Jeremy Bevan Gardens

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Using Online Tools to Design Your Play Structure

How would you like this in your backyard?

Or this?

Or even this?

Me too, but it's not going to happen.  The last one is a little more realistic, but alas, still out of my budget. These gorgeous play structures would set us back thousands of dollars, and that's why we're planning on building our own.  (Plus we have an awkward area, so we really need something custom anyway.)

These play structures are all from Cedarworks, and even if they're out of your budget, it's well worth visiting their site.  Cedarworks' has an easy to use design tool, which you can use to tailor your design to fit your space.  Grid lines let you know how big your structure is, so you can figure out what is feasible.  First you pick out a structure, then you can add and subtract a variety of options, including slides, swings, ladders, rock walls, and even a crow's nest complete with a rope and bucket. 

If you're at a loss at where to start, you can browse other customer's latest designs.  Some are pretty wild and I'm doubtful they've all been ordered.  There are also tons of example structures to use as a starting point. You can even view your design in 3-D.

If you're serious about ordering, or just curious how expensive your creation is, you can submit your design for a quote.  I received my quote by email within a couple of days, and a beautiful catalog a few days after that.  

By flipping through the catalog and tweaking various designs on the Cedarworks' site I've come up with several workable ideas for our future play structure.

Image credits: Cedarworks

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Finally, Summer!

So, after two months of not seeing the sun in the AM, the past two mornings we've awoken to beautiful sunlight streaming through the windows.  It's the end of August, but summer has arrived.  Yay!

I can finally bust out with the summer toys that have been stored away gathering cobwebs.  The twins had a blast with the water table.  Alas, they weren't content to just splash their hands in the water, but both ended up climbing into it, which looked pretty precarious.  This was my signal to rush out and buy an actual wading pool.  I even got a good deal, since a change in season is quickly approaching. 

Needless to say, I've already heard people grumbling about the heat and lamenting the disappearance of the fog.  It'll be back soon enough, which is reassuring.  But for now, I'm going to dig out my shorts and enjoy the heat.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Not All Plastic is Evil

I'm always struck that when I flip through a glossy magazine's spread of a kid's space, or even many design blogs catering to kids, there's always a noticeable dearth of big plastic toys in the yard.  Sure, it makes for beautiful pictures, but is it realistic?

I have to say that I'm guilty of having many of the large iconic plastic toys in my yard.  Before I had kids I would walk by houses that were littered with toys and would sneer and say that would never be me.  After all, what was wrong with these people.  Why didn't they simply pick up the toys-- how lazy.  Well, with kids of my own, I realize the difficulty in keeping the yard looking clean.  (We do have a large plastic shed to stow the toys if we're expecting guests.  But sadly, the rest of the time, much of the plastic crap just lays where it was last abandoned.)

Even though many of these toys don't fit into most people's idea of a beautiful landscape, I wouldn't trade them for anything.  The joy my children derive from their water table,  basketball hoop, ride-on toys, and countless plastic trucks make it all worth it.  I know it's for such a short period of time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

When Will I Learn?

I can't believe how quickly two toddlers can shred a box of tissues.  Well, actually I can.  They were being suspiciously quiet, but I was enjoying the peace too much to check on them. I have gone through more paper products in the past few years than perhaps in my entire adult life prior to kids.  I try not to be a wasteful person, but having small children makes any environmental aspirations I may have moot.

As soon as I cleaned up the mess (salvaging what I could), it was off to the park.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where have all of the honey bees gone?

My backyard-- that's where.  I know, honey bees are great for the garden and obviously our ecosystem at large, but I do wish they wouldn't congregate around our patio.  At least they're not aggressive like wasps, but I'm a bit of a wuss and it makes me nervous when they start buzzing around me and the kids. 

Our neighbors have a beautiful passion flower vine that cascades over our fence.  The bees love it.  They're always at least a dozen bees hovering around the area at any given time.

Here's a picture of the vine's fruit.  I didn't even realize these orange balls were part of the vine until a couple of months ago.  They almost look like apricots, but aren't as tasty.

Here's another favorite hangout for the bees in our yard:

This strange looking pod is part of a banana tree.  My four year old loves to yank at the leaves, which always causes a flurry of bees to fly out.  Here's a closer look inside:

I can't complain that much because the bees are doing a wonderful job.  The plants they hang around and pollinate seem to thrive.  And, so far, no one's been stung.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Did I Butcher It?

This orange tree dominates the small area we want to make into a children's vegetable garden.  The garden designer suggested relocating it.  Our only option, on that front, is to build a large container for it on our patio.  That sounds like an inordinate amount of work for a tree we're not sure we even want.  (Plus, the tree might not survive the shock of being transplanted.) So instead, I thought I'd try my hand at shaping it.  I tried to clean it up and open it up more.  I'm obviously not a bonsai master, and I had to deal with countless interruptions from the kids, so I got a little snip-happy at times, but I think we can get by leaving the tree in place for now. 

(The little limb sticking out at the bottom will be removed.  It was too big for the bypass shears and I have yet to locate the tree saw in our disaster of a garage.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Fire Garden

So, here are some pictures from the little garden my four year old helped plant:

I've never gone with a garden "theme" before.  But this time I decided to use mostly warm-colored plants, focusing on red, orange and yellow.  These fiery colors usually aren't my choice. I tend to opt for the cooler blues and purples, but I think kids dig vibrant colors.  As a child, I remember marigolds being my absolute favorites.

At first, I wasn't sure if I liked the bright combination of these flowers (clockwise from left, goblin plant, yarrow, red plume gaillardia, and gazania), but as they've filled in a bit I'm starting to like it.  It's gone from an area overgrown with agapanthus (which I do like in moderation) to a cheery little spot, replete with a child's bench.  Of course, as always, there's much more to do.  

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Play Structure Inspiration

The piece de resistance of any playground is of course the play structure.  We have an (unfortunately) small area in our yard which we've designated for our play structure.  I've been obsessively trolling the Internet and wandering our neighborhood for play structure inspiration.  I came across these designs on The Playhouse Company's website:

I like how many of these designs are equipped with an abundance of climbing features and slides, but with an economic use of space.   

This one even comes with storage underneath-- plenty of room to store all of that ubiquitous plastic kid crap.

We've toyed with the idea of building a pirate ship since what kid doesn't love running around yelling "argh?"

Not sure if this one has enough climbing features, but it could easily be adapted.

The difficulty will be somehow incorporating all of the play elements my older son wants (slide, rock wall, gang plank, fireman's pole, and on and on), making it safe for the little ones, and, perhaps most important, making it aesthetically pleasing to us.  A tall order indeed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Bountiful Harvest (Well, not Really)

I had no idea how easy it is to grow tomatoes.  I mean seriously, they demand so little attention, yet one small plant yields enough for our family.  Granted, we're not making salsa daily.  But we're using them in salads and sandwiches, and I must say the taste of a home-grown tomato is heavenly. 

Our oldest son, who is beyond picky when it comes to vegetables (going so far as to claim that he's allergic to anything green), will even tentatively eat these home-grown veggies. 

I've always been intimidated with growing edibles.  They seemed so fussy, but this single tomato plant has changed my tune.  This fall I plan on planting even more vegetables with the help of my kids.  The only problem I can see with these carefree edibles is that grabby little hands can do this:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Garbage Day

Few things rival the excitement of garbage day for my kids.  I love it too.  It always gives me an extra ten minutes of peace-- to choke down some cereal or something-- in an otherwise hectic morning.  My kids stake out their spot at the window and watch the various trucks haul away our waste-- a garbage can filled with rank diapers, an always embarrassingly full recycling bin and, an often overflowing garden waste bin. 

Another outstanding source of entertainment is any kind of construction project.  Obviously the bigger, the better.  The other day we walked around the corner to see a new sidewalk being put in.  Unfortunately, we couldn't wait around for the concrete pour.  A concrete mixer would have been nirvana for the kids.

I love these little excursions to construction sites almost as much as the kids. It gets tiresome having to constantly come up with new things to do, so easy entertainment is always appreciated.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Lovin' the Outdoor Chalkboard

So, after the required three-day wait to ensure the chalkboard paint was completely dry, my older son was let loose.

I love how little kids write their numbers-- the huge size discrepancies, the backwards 3's. He was so enthusiastic that he went to the end of the chalkboard and kept on going....

The chalkboard has already occupied him for a several hours, so it's been well worth the ten bucks and minimal effort to slap up a little paint.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mother's Little Helpers

I recently planted this little area with the help of my four year-old. His new found enthusiasm for gardening is so fun. It seems like just yesterday he was lopping off all of my flower heads. (A job subsequently taken over by his little sister and brother, who did it with even more glee.)

Now everyone wants to help in the garden. Sometimes if I'm in a hurry, or have a certain way I'd like something completed, this "help" can be a little frustrating. But I have to let some things go. I may have an idea of exactly where I want that yarrow plant to go, but more than likely that won't happen. Sometimes I just need to take a deep breath and appreciate spending this time with my children. Hopefully they'll inherit a love of gardening from me, as I did from my Dad.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Plants to Avoid

I'm always surprised at how many popular plants are poisonous. There are stories floating about of children dieing from simply drinking from a vase that's held foxglove flowers, or people in India using oleander to commit suicide. (Lovely-- we had a huge oleander bush at our old house.) Since my twins still unexpectedly pluck things off plants, or the ground, and plop them in their mouth, I need to be careful.

Most people have heard that foxglove is poisonous, but how about hydrangeas or boxwood hedges? On the flip side, many people think poinsettias are poisonous, but surprisingly that's a myth. (On the Christmas front, the less-hyped holly bush and mistletoe actually are poisonous.)

Foxglove-- pretty, but watch out!
photo by
Cath in Dorset

Here's a partial list of some common toxic plants you may want to avoid if you have little ones, and you can also check out the National Capital Poison Center's site for a more comprehensive list:

  • oleander
  • lantana
  • daffodil
  • foxglove
  • azaleas and rhododendrons
  • elephant ear
  • juniper bushes
  • wisteria
  • iris

Too bad so many of them are so pretty. I'm guilty of having a couple of these, but I planted them in our front yard, where I always have to keep an eye on the kids anyway.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Garage Chalkboard

Our garage door is hideous and detracts from the rest of the backyard. Replacing the door is on our ever-burgeoning to-do list. I was looking for a cheap, easy fix that would also be fun for the kids.

With enthusiastic help from my eldest, we transformed our ratty garage door into a giant chalkboard. It only cost ten bucks and took about half an hour to paint (on two days). I couldn't find any paint specifically for the outdoors, so we'll see how long this lasts.


I never would have dared using gloppy chalkboard paint on something I might have to paint over. That just seems like such a daunting undertaking. The beauty of painting this door was that it couldn't possibly look any worse. Now the best part of the door is the chalkboard. I think I'll have to expand it to cover even more of the door. The more that's covered, the better.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What Happened to Summer?

Here it is barely August and already the airwaves, internet and television are bombarding us with back to school messages. What happened to letting kids enjoy their summer?

Summer, like childhood, goes by so fast. I really do need to slow down and savor moments like this. Nothing beats an afternoon of water play for a toddler.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


A couple of years ago we bought a large slide for a future play structure we planned on building down the road. We subsequently got a hand-me-down plastic play structure, which while not aesthetically pleasing , was adequate for our purposes--at least at the time. Now that we have three little ones all vying for space on the small structure, we've gone back to our initial idea of designing and building our own.

The space where we plan on building the structure is tight, so we have to be imaginative with our design. I'm having fun searching the web for inspiration and love the look of the natural playgrounds that seem to be popping up everywhere. Although our installation will be very small, I can't help but be inspired by what I've seen on sites, such as Playground Designers UK. They design for schoolyards, but some of their ideas can be incorporated into a (much) smaller scale. I found the following gorgeous pictures on their site:

Talk about inspiration!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's the Little Things

No matter how elaborate the play structure, or kick-ass the pool, it seems kids still gravitate to these simple essentials:

1) Chalk. Kids love to color and outside is no exception. They'll quickly beautify any concrete structure and probably even give your outdoor furniture a face lift. (I always buy the washable chalk, but I wonder if that even matters. Isn't all chalk washable?)

2) Bubbles. (Word in the park is the bubbles from Gymboree are the bomb.)

3) Balls. Can you ever really have enough? Probably not. I can't count the number of balls that my kids have lobbed in various neighbors' yards never to be seen again. It seems there's always a shortage, which, of course, invariably leads to screaming and tears. (The most popular ball we have I bought at the dollar store, so there's really no excuse not to stock up.)

Woe to the mommy who is caught without the essentials.

image by Steve Johnson

Friday, July 30, 2010

New Surface for the Driveway

We have a large detached garage within our backyard, which is accessed through a back alley. It can be tricky to maneuver into the driveway, so we mostly park our cars in the street out front, as do most of our neighbors (there's plenty of room). The plus side of this set-up is that having the driveway as part of the backyard gives us some extra space. The down-side is we have a lot of concrete-- great for bouncing balls and riding trikes, but obviously not so great for tender little knees landing on it.

We needed a solution that left the concrete in place (so we still have an accessible garage if we ever need to use it) but offered a softer, less abrasive surface for the kids, and looked better than a drab concrete mass.

We also liked the idea of the kids still being able to use the space for bouncing balls and riding trikes and scooters around. After much research, we decided on sport court tiles. They're great for a driveway because you can even park on them if need be. Since we already had the concrete slab, this was an easy diy project. It just took a few hours to cover around 700 square feet. (We
didn't quite have room for a four square court, so we had to settle for two.)

We ordered the tiles from Versacourt at around $2 a tile, which is a little steep as a temporary fix. However, we're hoping this solution will grow with the kids. It's really made for basketball, so when the kids get a little bigger I envision them playing some hoops out back, or maybe they'll hone their skateboarding tricks on a half-pipe. Regardless, it looks better than an uninviting expanse of gray concrete.