Other backyard stuff

When we moved into a smaller home and I stepped out of the photography business, it made less sense for me to have a personal computer. I have a laptop for work and an iPad for most other computing needs (mostly online shopping).  But the change meant that sorting and editing photos became much harder, requiring me to snag Aaron’s computer, which he uses a LOT. Blogging started waning (as you know) and now the backend of the blog is throwing errors when I try to add photos. So, I’m bringing you a very unseasonable post because it was the most complete of the saved drafts. Apologies to anyone experiencing a true winter. The fantastic weather is a hallmark of SoCal and a big draw when we moved and chose those house. We’ve made steady progress revamping the backyard into our ideal oasis, including a stunning outdoor dining area and kitchen. This collection of projects rounds out this stage of the backyard makeover. The circular outcropping of patio has had multiple lives. Originally conceived as a dining space, we promptly removed the built in table and transitioned this to a fire pit spot when we moved in. When the fire pit moved to sit by the custom benches built into the new dining area, we planned to deck this section and install an herb garden. This solution posed a problem because circles are hard to deck and even harder to cap with a face plate. We ended up deciding that paying to have that section demoed was a better plan. We boxed out the herb garden with corten edging, filled with mulch. We snagged some square CB2 planters in varying heights. We ran irrigation through the bottom of the pots. The larger pots have a base layer of styrofoam (repurposed wine shippers) and gravel to add weight. This helps keep them steady and was more economical than filling them completely with potting soil. I ended up with 10 pots and chose different herbs for each. Many have survived several seasons: sage, chives, thyme, oregano, mint and tarragon. The parsley and basil last one season. The dill died pretty quickly. Last year my neighbor gave me a tomato plant that grew well, but produced subpar fruit. The Midwest wins for humidity and therefore better tomatoes. SoCal wins for just about everything else though. So we’ll stay. I’m pretty obsessed with this garden. I love being able to trim fresh herbs nearly year round. Tarragon has been my favorite addition to my kitchen. Chives are a close second, especially in the height of summer when they are prolific. With that done, Aaron finished decking the rest of the patio. Gratuitous dog photo, but also look at the gorgeous deck!

The last upgrade was a built-in watering bowl for Hank. We love having his water outside because jowls = drool. Aaron repurposed a bar sink, built a custom drain mechanism and an ipe cabinet to house everything. Now it’s easy to drain and refill his bowl. The ipe backsplash keeps the over spray off the house.

Hank’s favorite part is drinking straight from the faucet.

Here’s the best before/after pair I could find. The before is a serious throwback – from the listing for the house.

It’s SO nice to have the deck complete! And this photo shows you how well the herbs grow in the summer.

Am I blogging again? Does anyone even read blogs anymore?

“Maybe” is the answer to both of those questions. I’ll opine on the first and maybe your presence here answers the second.

So why am I back again – even after professing that I WAS back in August of 2020?

I made two resolutions for the new year that are both related to finding myself outside of work. I know I’m not alone in feeling like the move to remote work suddenly (and then slowly and irrevocably) changed the game. I spent a year trying to navigate all of that while still being seen as a high performer in a company filled to the brim with high performers. Then, after achieving a promotion, I spent the last year trying to figure out how to work as a director in a highly cross-functional role while coaching my team and meeting incredibly demanding project timelines (all while trying to be seen as a high performer).

And I burnt out… majorly. The result has helped me have more clarity about what I want, how I should measure success and what I’m willing to give to work. For example, I stopped working at night. Full stop. And I felt guilty and some things didn’t get done or didn’t get done exactly right. And then, nothing happened. The most important things rose to the top and the unimportant things fell away.

More importantly, I felt like myself again. I was able to step away from work, to give my brain time to shutdown and recapture the in between moments where I can process strategic and creative work. I was more rested and able to show up for my team, which makes them more effective and, hopefully, happier in their roles. And I felt like I had time again for something else. So I made two resolutions for this year.

  1. Get involved with something locally to create more ties to the community.
  2. Do something just for me

My initial reaction to number 2 was to take a watercolor class. COVID being what it is, that’s not in the cards for me yet. But I also felt the tug to come back here and then I found myself “writing” this blog post in the shower. (Is this not everyone’s creative process??) And so here I am.

Truth be told, part of what dimmed my passion is the pace of our renovations. It has slowed way down. Apparently renovating an 1,800-square-foot residence is much easier and faster than a 5,000-square-foot firehouse. So I have plenty of projects to share now, but at some point I may not – or they may be few and far between. So I’d like to see how it feels to just write again and maybe some themes will emerge (like travel) that I like and that keep you coming back. I guess we’ll answer the questions above together.

In the spirit of catching up, here are some questions that absolutely no one asked me but I thought I would answer anyways.

Q: Do you still live in the same house? Any plans to move?
A: Yes, we’re in the same house, and no, we have no plans to move… but we still look a real estate. You are probably not surprised. We definitely love to imagine our lives in different spaces, but we’ve become SO MUCH pickier about what we’d need to actually move. This house still ticks a lot of boxes and staying here would help us achieve a new priority: retiring early. So as someone who sold a “forever home” I’ll never say never. But I will say it would take a lot.

Q: Still no regrets over selling the firehouse?
A: Not one

Q: So you like California?
A: We love it. It felt like a big risk to come here and it has paid of in spades. We feel so lucky that we were here when the pandemic hit for so many reasons. High on that list is our ability to drive to so many beautiful places. We’ve been fortunate to still travel a fair amount, using the social distance of camping to fill that need.

Q: Do you still work at the place that burned you out?
A: I do. I’m not using their name because this isn’t really about that company. Also, it’s in the biotech industry, and there are lots of rules around disclaiming that my opinion doesn’t represent the company’s opinion… not that they likely have an opinion on my house renovations, but, you get it, it’s a whole thing.

So that’s an update on me. Per usual, Instagram is great place to engage if you want to follow along, but there’s a chance I’ll respond to comments here if you want to give me a shout.

Outdoor kitchen

Whilst chatting with our best friends in St Louis a few weeks ago, they mentioned reorganizing their kitchen ahead of the arrival of their baby. They planned to store some of their seasonal kitchen items in totes in their basement, like their grilling gear. And, not kidding, my brain short circuited for a full second as I processed the concept of not being able to cook outside ALL of the time. Creating a space for outdoor cookery has been high on our list of improvements for this house. When the pandemic sent us into lockdown last spring, finishing the outdoor kitchen sprung to the top of Aaron’s list. Let’s dive in with a throwback “before” photo… which is actually a photo of Hank, but because I’m so off my blogging game that this is legitimately the best “before” shot of the area that would become the kitchen. He’s a handsome boy 🙂 When Aaron laid the deck for the outdoor dining room, he also built the platform and deck for the kitchen. And, yes, this is another picture of Hank, which happens to be a decent “before” shot. This is essentially our view when we walk from the living room out to the backyard. For those playing along, you might remember that we reconfigured the backside of the house with this in mind during the interior reno. Let’s get into the details. We knew we needed space for the smoker and grill, storage for our new commercial style vacuum sealer, and lots of countertop. My general opinion is that you can’t have too much countertop in a kitchen. Plus we’ve taken to occasionally frying things and there’s no better place to do that than outside. Ditto for cooking up stir fry dishes in a wok. We mapped out a few possible configurations, but kept getting tripped up on the size of the smoker. It’s a Yoder that we planned to remove from its attached cart. Ultimately, after lots of research by Aaron, we opted to sell the Yoder and invest in a Memphis Elite pellet smoker and wood-fired grill with a much smaller footprint. And after much deliberation, Aaron nixed his charcoal grill in favor of a small, built-in gas unit. That gave us ample room for a fry station when needed and even space for a small sink. Construction started with the base cabinets and setting the Toja grid for the overhang. We opted for a smaller version than we used on the outdoor dining room, which was much easier to maneuver. An aside about cabinet building. I am constantly amazed at Aaron’s abilities. At one point in the last few years, I walked into the garage and he had built a cabinet – seemingly out of thin air. If I had to build a cabinet it would assuredly end in tears and at least one, (hopefully) non-fatal injury. I’m blown away that he can design and build things. It’s like this amazing super power that I get to witness. I digress… With the structure in place, he was ready to start tiling the counter. We opted for absolute black granite, the same material we used in the indoor kitchen, except in large scale tiles. The large opening will house the smoker, leaving ample counter space to the left. On the right side of the kitchen, there’s space for a small sink and the small gas grill. The cabinet on the far right will house the vacuum sealer on a slide out shelf for easy access. The back and top are lined with strips of ipe, the same material as the deck, which adds some nice natural texture above the black stone. After that I seem to remember basically walking outside one day to a finished kitchen… and my photo album seems to support that memory. But I know Aaron spent some time installing the smoker and grill AND a fair bit of time creating the front cabinet panels. The slats were meticulously designed to ensure a completely seamless look. Four doors are hidden within, offering access to the cabinets and clipping in place with magnets. So I’m sure there were hours of cutting, nailing, and painting… but we’ll just pretend his super powers let him snap his fingers and arrive at this. Amongst the kitchen build, we finally decided on a planter arrangement to fill the gap between the kitchen and dining area. We opted for Mexican river rock as a base, which ties into other planters in the backyard and is one of our favorite stone options. We topped these with pots we gathered from HomeGoods for an herb garden, but which worked better here. Then we added lavender and trailing rosemary, irrigation and some uplights. And, yes, you may notice that two of the lavender plants succumbed to lack of water between purchase and planting. We replaced them with greener versions, which adds some nice contrast against the silvery ones that survived. The shot below gives you a better  view of the dining room, planter and kitchen all together. I love how the avocado tree encroaches a bit.   Ok. Are you ready for some before/after goodness? That is one sexy kitchen… and (fair warning)… it might be sexier at night. If you stop by and we don’t answer the door right away, it’s because we’re outside… Can you blame us?

Dining outdoors is the best dining

Between the four seasons (sometimes in one day) and humidity, I like to joke that Missouri only has about 5 completely perfect days a year. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, the SoCal weather, specifically in a nearly coastal town like Camarillo was a huge draw for us. We have our house open as much as possible and I never mind the extra dusting. It’s a fair trade off for enjoying the fresh air. I tell you all of this because the exterior of a house, specifically an area for outdoor dining, was on our wish list during our home search. In fact, we were so enamored with the backyard on a home in Camarillo that we made an offer despite the fact that the house was only 1,400 square feet with a funky layout and much too small kitchen. That’s how hard we fell HAAARD for the backyard.  Thankfully, we didn’t get that house and instead inherited this:   Which wasn’t exactly a move-in ready dining area (we tore out the built-in, small, sun drenched exterior table pretty quickly after moving in, but it was potential, and you know how much we love potential! The view above is looking out from our living room. We removed this door and replaced it with French doors, anticipating that some day this space would be our prime outdoor entertainment area. This post will orient you to the outside door placement if you want a refresher. You won’t see these raised beds in many previous posts because they got pretty gnarly after years of neglect. So when we hired a crew to clean out our backyard planters, we had them rip these out as well, which gave us the blank slate we were looking for. Over the months, the design for this space went through many iterations. We considered tiling the whole patio, but eventually settled on a raised deck with a pergola. The space was so long that it gave us a chance to add a built-in seating area, which would allow us to move our fire pit into this entertaining zone. Construction kicked off with Aaron setting the footings and removing the brick light posts. After that he framed the deck. Here’s a look at the built-in benches getting roughed in. This will make a lot more sense a few pictures down. Next he started adding the electrical and lights. Before you ask, the deck in the back left of the photo is a kitchen. It is equally drool worthy and will get its own post. For now, let’s focus on lighting. We opted for lots of layers so we could provide the right glow for any occasion. Ambient uplighting comes from these really cool puck lights. Next up was decking with our favorite outdoor wood: Ipe. We’ve been enamored with this wood since we used it on the garage and fence at the firehouse. It’s a great candidate for California because, among other attributes, it is termite resistant. We opted for a clean look by covering the whole deck with full boards. You’ll see these lines carried through the rest of the deck when I get those photos up 🙂 Here’s a better shot of the benches. They’re a step down from the deck and sit flush with the yard. The hatch on the left allows for access to necessary electrical bits and will get covered by the cushions. Then it was time to oil, which is the absolute best day when working with Ipe. Soooooo prettttty! With the deck in place, Aaron turned his attention to the pergola, which was inspired by Costco. What? Inspiration is all around 😀 While browsing Costco one weekend (remember the days when you could leisurely shop?), we noticed they were selling a pergola kit. It was fairly reasonable and got Aaron thinking that it would be faster and potentially cheaper and easier to use a kit. The Costco option didn’t work due to the size and style, but Aaron turned to the interwebs and found Toja Grid, a modular, sleek pergola system. The hardware pieces allow you to connect 4×4 or 6×6 lumber in a variety of configurations. We opted for 6×6 to give the pergola enough visual weight for the space we planned to cover. The posts and beams got a coat of Sherwin Williams Woodscapes in Black Alder, which is becoming our go to exterior coating and color. The pieces went together as expected, but we ran into a complete work stoppage when we realized that there was no way for us to safely raise the first set. The height, weight, angles, literally everything were working against us. Once again, the interwebs came to the rescue. Aaron was able to hire a few laborers to do the (literal) heavy lifting and get the pergola in place. With the structure in place, we started adding in the decor:
  • Table – Design Within Reach 1966 Collection, bought from the local DWR outlet which can be a dangerous place to browse
  • Chairs – Wayfair
  • Pots (various, but lots from HomeGoods) and plants (my favorite is the New Zealand Christmas tree)
  • Lights – Costco
  • Sunshade
Much improved view from our bedroom below: The fire pit seating got light gray cushions made from Sunbrella fabric. The daytime photos are stunning, but the evening pictures may be better thanks to the lighting. It’s hard to choose which I like better… I imagine it’s like having children. You appreciate them for different reasons. Now you can see the layers of lights. String lights keep the overhead lighting from being too heavy and a dimmer allows for brighter light during meals. The uplighting will run the whole perimeter of the deck (which will cover the entire patio – more photos soon!) Downlighting highlights that the dining room is raised and also washes the back of the fire pit seating. Ok, I lied. I like the evening photos the best. Don’t tell the daytime photos I picked a favorite. MUCH more to show you out here, including a magazine worthy outdoor kitchen that was Aaron’s first COVID project, which has allowed us to enjoy it all summer.

Current status

Note: It’s been awhile since I’ve come to this space… so long that it feels like a completely different world. Last time I was here, we weren’t living in a pandemic and George Floyd was still alive. Both things will come to define this year. For the most part, Aaron and I have been fortunate. I work from home now, opting for a uniform of tights and t-shirts. Like many others with remote-capable jobs, I feel tethered to my computer for long hours and some days are truly a struggle. Meanwhile, this country is simultaneously waking up and closing their eyes/ears to the systemic racism that people have faced for decades. We’re in the former group, a work in progress like most people, but unapologetically rooted in the belief that Black Lives Matter. We also believe in science and facts, which still feels like a weird thing to have to defend.

In the midst of all of this, blogging about my house felt trivial… and more often than not, I was left with very little energy or emotion at the end of the day. As recently as earlier this week I thought, “The blog is dead.” Putting words to that thought made me stop and really consider if I was done here, and I decided that I wasn’t. I want to be here in spite of everything going on – mostly as an outlet where I can put some positive energy to pull me out of much of the negativity waiting for me in the world.

While I sincerely hope that the November 3 results in a much needed change to the occupant of the White House, I know that the work doesn’t end there. We’re in a marathon to change America for the better – to create a more perfect country where our ideals are truly available for all. And because it’s a marathon, we all need time and space to step out for a minute, to recharge. So I’m here to do that for me and if my ramblings help you do that too, welcome friend.

This post was inspired by Redfin, who has suddenly broken through the Gmail barrier and lands their emails in my inbox (rather than the black hole that is promotions folder). I don’t mind. You probably already know I have a thing for real estate, and the emails make it easy to keep up with the houses selling in Camarillo. I feel like I’ve adjusted to the California real estate market, but every once in a while I see a listing and react with “they’re listing a 3/2 1,200-sq-ft house for WHAT?” It was one of those listings, that made me visit our home’s Redfin post to double check the size of our lot. And the listing pictures gave me such a kick that I decided to give you a current status look at where we are vs the listing photos. We had more than one COVID construction (COVID-struction?) project so there’s plenty of new content for any of you who have been stalking my Instagram or just generally wondering what we’ve been up to on the home renovation front. This will give you a taste and I’ll swing back with individual posts (and more photos) on some of the major areas that I haven’t posted about.

Let’s dive in, because the front of the house got a major facelift… and we didn’t do most of the work (gasp!)

The updated paint is a little hard to see in the after shot (more on that here) but the lack of grass is pretty apparent! We were so excited to pull the trigger on a xeriscaped front yard AND pay someone else to do the work. The front beds are still a work in progress. We also have plans for the entryway and a new garage door at some point.

Stepping into the main space of the house, it was fun to remember what was where and try and get the same angles. My lens wasn’t quite as wide, but I think you get the idea.

I really want to pull out the before photos of the living room and give it the post it deserves, because the transformation is CRAZY!

We haven’t talked much about the master bath… mostly because it’s kind of meh. We painted it white and it feels a little sterile and disjointed. I painted the cabinets and hated just about every minute of it. They turned out ok.

Yep! We did it! We finally got the wine room of our dreams. It’s not 100% done (still need to hang some art) but more details coming soon!

I loooooove the changes we’ve made in the backyard.

The only thing I’m not super jazzed about is losing the ivy covered fence. That’s a story for a different day.

So that’s where we are. There’s plenty of projects to dive into and I’m genuinely looking forward to pulling together some before/after shots of most the recent (within the last year-ish is recent, right?) transformations.