Starting the natural fence

Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement on last week’s post. We were both pleasantly surprised by the number of comments and the outpouring of support. You guys are awesome! Virtual hugs for everyone!

I remembered that we finished a project this summer that I have yet to share. So before we dive into some other topics (like Paris and what we like/don’t like about living in an alternative space and PARIS!), let’s take a look at the start of the natural fence. Ta da!


… It’s the 5 new trees next to the fence… I feel like you’re not impressed…

To be fair, as with most landscaping projects, this feels a bit like “before and before” pictures, rather than “before and after”, because we need everything to grow to achieve the desired effect.

But, let’s back up. We bought the extra lot (LOTS of detail on that here) but never intended to redo the fence to make it part of our yard. Still, it needs some barriers to prevent people from walking through it/dumping trash/messing with the garden we intend to build. In the back we’ll install something a bit more standard, but up front we thought it would be nice to plant a living fence in the form of a row of evergreens.


Aaron spotted some nice sized specimens at Home Depot earlier this spring. We planned to grab the trees we needed when they went on clearance at the end of the summer. So we bided our time.. and apparently we bided too long… We stopped by in mid-August to find all of the shrubs had been sold!

Thankfully the interwebs knew we needed some shrubbery, and after a little research on what should grow well, we landed on Leyland Cypress. The Tree Center had several heights available and good reviews. We decided on the 3′ – 4′ option (mostly based on price) and ordered seven. They were on sale for $44.50 each and we scored free shipping for spending more than $100. Winning!

It’s been a few years since we drug hundreds of pounds of bricks out of our yard, but we were quickly reminded just how much debris is lurking beneath the surface of these lots that once contained a brick home… and now contain a good part of that home beneath the surface.  This is just some of the pieces we hauled out of one hole.


It wasn’t totally smooth sailing, but by taking turns digging we were able to plant a tree about every 35 minutes. We opted to stagger the trees (using the measurements from here) so that the fence fills in faster.


We also only planted five of them. As we were working, we decided that the area furthest from our fence is too shaded to support this type of tree. Eventually, we’ll add a section of horizontal ipe to finish off the row.


Here are a few before and after shots.

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The whole tree buying experience got us really inspired to think about what other trees we ultimately want for the yard. We talked about adding something that has nice fall color near the front of the yard and grabbing additional evergreens to stick in the back corner (which is a bit bare after we lost a tree). We almost added more to our order, but decided that planting seven trees in one weekend was more than enough. I’m so glad we waited, because we knew just what to do with the two extra trees.


We waited a week to put these guys in their new home (apparently 5 trees in one day was quite enough.) In the meantime, the temperature spiked back to normal August levels and we ended up digging these holes in full sun next our steel paneled fence (which gets really warm.) Basically it felt like we were on the surface of the sun… minus our skin literally melting away. But you get the point. It was REALLY hot and we ran into even more bricks, rocks and chunks of asphalt back here. Progress was slow and we’ll admit that neither hole was the requisite diameter. But they’re in and so far they’re alive.


So now we water and wait.





Good bye, 2015, and good riddance

There’s an adage that goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I generally subscribe to that for blogging. Besides the fact that I doubt you want to come here and read a Debbie Downer tale, I certainly do not want to look back and vividly remember the low times. I’m a glass half full kind of gal.

So it means something when I say, “This year kind of sucked.”

Mainly, we are frustrated by the lack of progress on the things we wanted to tackle at the firehouse. We’ve also hit a LOT of bumps in the road

On top of that, our wedding photography season kept us running like crazy until we escaped for a short trip to London in November. So the last part of the year was a bit of a whirlwind.

To cap it all off (literally), we had to get a new roof.


After London, I continued to Hamburg for a work conference and Aaron flew home to what I imagine was one of the worst nights of his life. In the midst of extremely heavy rain, the leak in the awesome bathroom re-opened and two leaks in our living room sprung up. So he spent the evening watching his hard work in the living room literally crumble.


The good news is we already have a roof company (MLK Construction/St. Louis Roofing Company) that we know and trust. The bad news is that we have to eat Ramen for the entirety of next year. (I kid! … But send wine.)

Unwilling to let the structure of our house crumble, we opted for a full re-covering.

(Photos below from MLK Construction. I don’t need anyone getting the impression that I would willingly climb a 40 ft ladder.)


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In another good bit of news, they were able to start and finish our project within one week of signing the contract.

We are so happy with everything and highly recommend MLK Construction. They do everything you expect from a service provider and things you rarely receive from contractors (respond promptly, provide a range of options, tell you where you need to spend money and what is overkill).

They went above and beyond in so many ways: reinforcing our ceiling hatch (which we have yet to open from the inside), removing the terra cotta caps and waterproofing underneath, working late into the night on Saturday and blowing the crud (and leaves) off of our driveway.

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So that’s it! Not much else can go wrong this year. (RIGHT? We had a slight scare when Ameren showed up last week asking to look at the power pole in our backyard that is SURROUNDED by concrete poured for our patio. Thankfully the pole is not rotting… and we feel like we dodged a bullet.)

2015 is winding down and we are so ready for (even a symbolic) shift to a new year. 2016 – we are coming for you! We have plans!

Thanks, as always, for coming by our little corner of the interwebs. We truly appreciate all the love and support that comes our way as we tackle this crazy dream of ours. We are absolutely giddy to tackle the projects that got delayed (looking at you, downstairs living and dining rooms) and sharing them with you next year. Cheers, friends!

All I want for Christmas is a guy with a Bobcat

Really, all I wanted for Christmas was a Roomba, but Aaron got that for me. So the guy with a Bobcat moved to the first slot on the list.

I should probably explain.

We talked about it briefly when we bought the extra, extra lot, but property in the city is weird. In the suburbs you have a yard and your neighbor has a yard, and not much is going to change that. It’s even better in the country. You have land and your neighbor has land, and you probably can’t even see each other from your house. Everyone is good with that, and not much is going to change.

The city is totally different. It’s the wild, wild west of property ownership. You own property and your neighbor owns property, but it’s RIGHT next to yours and sometimes your neighbor is a church that decides to expand a parking lot (explanation near the end of this post).

This time the change is to our east side. This side has been a bone of contention since our “neighbor” bought the lot that we envisioned as our yard out from under us. The main reason we wanted that lot was because most of our windows face east. Until we added windows in the downstairs living room, we had to physically walk outside to see anything on the west side of the building.

I digress, to the east of the firehouse, within a few narrow lots, is a power substation and a massive old brick building. Actually, there WAS a massive brick building. It nearly encompassed our view and being lovers of old buildings we… well, we loved it.


That is from the kitchen window. Here’s a look from the upstairs (moving from the back of the building to the front.)

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At a meeting last year, a bride’s father who works for Ameren (our local power company) told us that the building was slated to be torn down. This was not a huge surprise to us. The power company had a demo permit a few years ago but let it expire. We know this because in the wild west of real estate, you get really familiar with the city’s online real estate resources.

Still it wasn’t something we actively thought or worried about, until we woke up on a Friday in October to see chain link fence being assembled around the perimeter.

The time had come, and it wasn’t going to be a quick or silent farewell. Over the last two months we’ve watched this awesome old building literally be destroyed (not salvaged in the least). We have slammed our windows shut in the nicest part of the year to avoid the demolition dust. We have felt our building shake as they jack hammered the foundation. We have called the police and the Ameren hotline and our alderman to get a 24/7 demo permit revoked. (I wish I was joking. They literally planned to – and did for two nights – set up lights and jack hammer next to our building through the night.)

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Slowly it crumbled and sank and was covered and it still isn’t done… But the damage is evident. Our view is profoundly different. We feel exposed.

On one hand, it makes our location feel more urban. You can see much more of the area and there are some cool buildings. But it is also less secluded.

(Upstairs moving from back to front of the building.)

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The view from the kitchen took the biggest blow. Here’s a before and after.

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It’s worse at night…
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Our plan has always been to create a living fence out of evergreens (specifically Green Giant Arborvitae, which grow fast and tall) on this side of the property. Mostly, because we knew this day would come eventually. So when we saw the fence go up, we started to discuss whether we could move this project up the list. Before we got too far we had to check the status of the ground. If you haven’t been here since day one (hi mom!) you may not remember that the lot immediately east of the firehouse is actually deemed an alley (albeit an alley to nowhere).  It’s covered with half asphalt, half grass but we had a strong assumption that the asphalt ran to the edge and was simply covered with grass. A quick poke with a long screwdriver confirmed our suspicion. There is asphalt and no hope of planting tress until we remove it.

And that – all of that – my friends, is why I need a guy with a Bobcat… And a free dumpster… And maybe a gift card to a tree farm this Christmas. Someone send this to the North Pole for me.

Extra lot

(You can file this under TMI.)

We bought another vacant lot… and of course there is a long, complicated back story.

First, let’s get oriented. If you haven’t heard the story about how our yard came to be on the right side of our building, check out this VERY old post. The other thing you need to know is that between our yard and the yard attached to a two family building further west was yet another vacant lot.

It’s a little hard to see in the photo below.


This is a little better:


Basically from our fence line to a chain link fence on the right lived an overgrown, unappreciated slice of land.

Here’s where it’s helpful to know a little bit about the process for acquiring vacant property from the city of St Louis. Property that is delinquent on taxes for three consecutive years is taken by the sheriff’s department and auctioned at one of five land tax sales each year. The details of which properties are for sale and the opening bid are posted on the city’s website two weeks before the auction. (I’m paraphrasing, of course, if you’re interested in this process, the city website has more details.) Land that is not bought during the auction is turned over to the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), which is how we purchased our yard.

Still with me? Three years + no tax payments = lot for sale!

When we moved into the firehouse and got our first taste of how inexpensive land can be in the city, we instantly wanted more information on this lot (right right lot… far right lot… still work shopping the name.) The owner was delinquent on taxes (a whopping $30/year) for two years. That left only one more year to go before we could buy it at auction (hopefully for just the taxes owed, because who wouldn’t want a plot of land for like $100??!)

So we waited and we debated trying to contact the owner directly, fearing that he would realize he owned a plot of land that would slip from his grasp for mere dollars. Eventually we tried and failed to find contact information for the owner. So we kept waiting and eyeing the lot.

Three years came and still taxes were owed. “Hooray!” we thought. Then we waited to see the property appear on the sheriff’s list. We waited… and waited… and waited. Finally, we asked our lawyer/realtor/friend/co-star on House Hunters, Ted Disabato, to see if he could find out what was going on with this piece of property. A call from him got it added to the next auction.

I feel like we need a break for more pictures, don’t you? Here’s another shot looking from the front of the property to the back before clean up…


And after… (We’re getting there…I promise.)


The auction process was interesting, albeit strange, because the city of St. Louis really doesn’t make anything fun or easy. In the middle of the day, Aaron headed to Civil Courts Building to register and attend the auction, which amounted to an officer in the front of the room reading lot numbers through a garbled speaker. When a property came up that someone was interested in buying, they shouted over everyone and the list price became the opening bid. Aaron saw a few bidding wars, mostly for properties that had a salvageable structure on them. When our lot was called, Aaron was the lone bidder. He headed to pay for the lot, only to discover that payments are not processed until the auction is over. When he was finally allowed to pay, we handed everything over to Ted to finalize the details.

The lot was ours! Unfortunately, as you’ve already seen the lot was horribly overgrown. The only maintenance it received was an occasional mowing by the city (usually when it became so overgrown that I submitted a complaint.) It’s hard to see, but most of the undergrowth  on the treed section of the lot was covered in poison ivy.


So we hired a crew from Craigslist to clean it out… well, start the cleaning out process. It was money well spent considering the size of the plot, the overgrowth, the poison ivy, and our lack of available weekends. Just like with our yard, we’ll spend more hours than we’d like to document pulling all manner of trash and brick out of the ground.

SO much talking… let’s take a look at some more before/after shots.




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And (of course) there’s more to the story. If you were here two years ago, you heard about the tree that our electric company killed and then offered to “turn into firewood.” The result was less like firewood and more like a collapsed Jenga tower… if Jenga was played with massive slices of tree trunks. Thanks to other, more pressing projects and the lack of of a chainsaw AND “OMG what are we going to do with these hunks of wood??” we  ignored the problem. It sat on the other side of the fence, and we didn’t even have to drive by it on a regular basis. I’m sure our backside neighbors were really happy with that decision.

A letter from the city prompted us to tackle the weeds that sprung up. Chainsaw in hand, we went after the stumps only to discover our tiny chainsaw was not well equipped to cut down such massive hunks of wood. We opted instead to create a barrier to keep anyone from dumping trash in the yard. You learn a lot of things living in the city… so far most of them have related to the massive amounts of trash that people will dump pretty much anywhere they please.

Our “solution” quickly looked as bad as when we got the letter. BUT we were in the midst of paperwork to take ownership of the lot! So as part of the clean up effort, we also negotiated the removal of the fallen tree sections.


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It’s about 80% done and the owner keeps promising to come back and finish the job. In related news: I have less faith in the honesty of people we hire on Craigslist….

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So that’s our most recent firehouse acquisition: a lot about 2/3 the size our yard that’s has a serious poison ivy problem.


If you’re not asleep, you’re probably asking yourself “Why? Why buy this.” And we have many reasons.

1. Property is a good investment, especially when it is purchased cheaply. We didn’t get this lot for just the taxes owed, but after the legal fees it was less than $3k.

2. We’ve seen so much property get sucked up around us and watched helplessly at the turn of events. The guy who owns the building next to ours (who basically bought our intended yard out from under us) has since bought the property east of his building and then promptly CUT DOWN ALL THE TREES. Why? We have no idea. Without the shade his lot has exploded into a gnarl of weeds and grasshoppers. Also the church behind us bought the lots next to the alley and fenced them in to create a larger parking lot (a lot I’ve never seen more than 1/3 full), severely limiting the space we have to pull out of our garage. (Whenever I have to take the Ford Flex out it’s like the scene from Austin Powers where he does a 32-point turn….)

3. The lot gives us additional places to park things, like maybe the trailer.

Directly after posting the 2015 garden update, things took a sharp turn for the worse. The ipe planter now looks like this:


Here’s what happened…


The herbs flourished in this spot. The oregano is doing so well it took over the thyme and killed it. We always called this an experiment, and now we know this is a great spot for herbs.

So reason 4. The chance to build and plant some raised garden beds.

That’s the (long) story on our expanding footprint. We obviously have intentions for this space, but we’re trying to be reasonable about the timeframe… as in there isn’t one. Right now we’re pulling junk out a little at a time, spraying the poison ivy, and considering what kind of bush would make the best living fence in the front of the property. All of this is with an eye to setting up some garden beds in the spring. We’ll see how things play out. Honestly, it’s just nice to finally own this piece of land that clearly no one else wanted and have one less question mark on our master plan.


Garden: 2015

Aaron finished the planter between the firehouse and the garage last year in time to film our episode of House Hunters: Where Are They Now? But we didn’t have enough time left in the year to fill it up.


This spring we changed that with several bags of dirt and a bunch of starter plants. The steel fence gets pretty hot during the summer. We weren’t sure what would grow here so we opted to plant a variety and see what stuck. The short answer: everything!


The left side has a Roma tomato and three pepper plants (I can’t remember what is what, but I think the small one is a jalapeno plant and the others are red or green bell peppers.) There’s a beefsteak tomato plant in the middle, another pepper plant, basil, parsley, thyme and oregano.


Everything is growing well, except the beefsteak which looks like it may have caught something.

Also, I don’t have much produce yet thanks to the supremely wet and overcast summer we had up until last week. My tomatoes are finally starting to get some color… but Hank has decided that not quite ripe tomatoes are delicious or at least fun toys. Jerk.


I also filled the pots with a few more plants: (left to right) rosemary, cherry tomato, chives, two kinds of mint, basil and lavender. That basil was a backup in case the other one didn’t do well. My favorite summer cocktail is a basil lemon martini, but I’m beginning to think I need to find a good pesto recipe to use up some of that basil! The cherry tomato is only doing so so. I assume the pot isn’t big enough for him.


So that’s what we have growing this year. Seriously, who has a pesto recipe that is awesome? Bonus points if it doesn’t have pine nuts. Those things are so expensive.