It’s sweet pea time! Sweet peas are amazing things. They were, according to Wikipedia, “the floral sensation of the late Victorian era” and they have the names to prove it; enchanting names like Bronze Prince, Black Knight, Mrs. Bernard Jones, and Lady Grisel Harrington. And the scented ones smell heavenly. But despite how carefully they’ve been bred and cultivated, my experience of them is that they are wanton enthusiasts and hardy as hell – almost as hardy as sunflowers, which have been known to sprout from randomly tossed seed in the same unhospitable soil. Lucky for me! Last weekend, I felt like planting sweet peas and realized I didn’t have any. Darn it. Then I looked down.

sweet peas

These are all volunteers from last year. Against all odds, they sprouted in wood chips covering hard packed clay. So really, how delicate could they be?

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Here’s what they look like when you dig them up. The whole pea comes with the sprout.

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And I had so many! All of a sudden it seemed like everywhere I looked there was another sweet pea sprout. So I carefully dug them all up and then replanted them along the wagon wheel fence, which was where they had been last year and where I wanted them again. And yes, dear reader, each little group of transplanted sweet peas has its own little string to climb up. It took hours, and was the perfect, meditative job for someone with a bit of an obsessive bent (i.e., moi).

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When I was finally, painfully done, I looked around for my next project and found these – crazy little sunflower sprouts that had patiently waited out the winter in the bottom of a terra cotta pot and sprouted hopefully in about a teaspoonful of soil. So I carefully transplanted those too. And this week, I’m happy to report, most of them are still alive.






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Yes, we’re facing the mother of all droughts in California, but – who could imagine a summer without sweet peas and sunflowers?




Wonders of the Woods

In the summer, the Schoolhouse is in a lovely glade in the redwoods. In winter, it’s just in the redwoods. Still, things grow, and as spring approaches it’s time to tame the troops. Here’s the back pathway up to the driveway AFTER I got done cutting back the lavender and everything else:


But that’s not the really exciting part. The exciting part is what I found while I was doing it. Here’s the ground I was working on: see anything?


Of course not, that’s the point. But look closer:


Wow, what the heck is that? I’m so glad I didn’t step on him. I called Steve and he thought it was a skink but I googled skinks and we knew it wasn’t one right away because skinks are scaly like lizards. So then I thought, you know, I don’t know if one actually exists but it really looks like it’s some kind of giant newt or salamander. So I googled giant salamander and guess what? It exists! Dicamptodon ensatus is the California giant salamander. There are several varieties and ranges and one is Sonoma to Mendocino. The ones that don’t live in streams live in dark, wet places in the woods. And here’s what’s really cool: they can get pretty big, up to 11 inches long, and they EAT BANANA SLUGS. Okay, I did not see our guy do anything but sit there but I found a picture of this and it is awesome:

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Here’s our guy back in his hole. I did not even see him move.

Pacific giant salamander, hiding

Wonder what I’m gonna find next time?

So, where were we? Right, I had just driven to Lowes and back to return and buy back the same seven 5 inch, IC rated, remodel cans, and Steve was drilling holes in the ceiling.

We added five cans along the long side and two along the short side, in an L shape. Because of my previously mentioned ladder aversion, it was all on Steve – measuring, making sure the can could pop through the ceiling and not hit a rafter, drilling the pilot holes, marking the larger holes, and jigsawing them out.

This is what it looks like when you have jig-sawed out the 5-inch diameter hole in your clean, pristine white ceiling. No matter how much you are looking forward to having more light, this is the point when you think, “Gee, I really hope we know what we’re doing.” Once the holes were all made I handed Steve the cans, one by one. Here’s what they looked like when they were ready to be wired:

Fortunately, we had the wiring pretty much ready to go, because we’d had extra wiring and a switch put in when we had the original work done – but still, someone had to climb that long ladder to the top, hoist himself up into the attic, and crawl around through the insulation to put it all together. Reader, it was not me.

When we first started this project we were fairly cavalier about things like sawdust and paint fumes, but we learned. And one of the things we learned – the hard way, of course – is that fiberglass insulation is nothing to mess around with. So we didn’t. Steve thinks he wasn’t in the attic that long, given that he had to wire up seven light fixtures, but it felt like forever to me. As long as I could hear him thumping around I didn’t worry too much, but when he was quiet for any length of time I yelled up at him to make sure he hadn’t fainted or something.

Once the wiring was done, it was time for trim:

And, of course, for patching the paint where the jigsaw had scratched it. And for testing bulbs. The first two we tried were rejects – both of them were too long, and the LED one had a cold light almost like a fluorescent.

But once we got the right bulbs in, it was FABULOUS.

It’s like they were always here! And here’s how it looked when we finished Thanksgiving dinner. As one of my sisters said, “We must be the only family who will drive for hours to sit in the same room and read!”

We are a family of readers. Now we are a family of middle-aged readers. Meaning, we need MORE LIGHT.

The main room of the Schoolhouse has three distinct areas: the kitchen, the dining area, and the living area. When we first installed lighting, we followed code and installed ugly fluorescent features in the kitchen area to pass inspection, and then switched them out for fixtures we liked. We hung a cool vintage chandelier I found at Elray of Delray while we were visiting Steve’s Mom in Florida over the  dining table. And in the living area, we hung the two fabulous snowball chandeliers I found at Ikea when we first bought the Schoolhouse. They looked great – still do. But especially now, as we head into the dark days of winter, it’s just not enough light.

Here’s what the lighting looked like when we started. See that looooong expanse between the vintagey chandelier on the right and the snowball on the left? That was over the couch, meaning it was virtually impossible for anyone to read on the couch after 3 PM. Or, really, anytime, if they’re middle aged.

We talked about more light a lot last winter, and then guess, what – Spring came, and we kind of forgot. When Fall came again, and we found ourselves racing each other for the one chair with decent light,  we decided it was time. We thought about getting the electricians back, but Steve’s learned a lot about pretty much everything over the last few years and he decided to do it himself. And I say “himself” advisedly: our ceilings at the Schoolhouse are 12 feet high, which means I, with my aversion to ladders, was pretty much useless. And so it began…

First, we needed a new, taller ladder. Here’s how Steve painted the ceiling, months ago:

Now, is that itty bitty ladder a good idea? Even for someone with the sense of balance of a mountain goat? NO – clearly not. And painting is nothing compared to drilling, sawing, and wrestling light fixtures, when you really need something to brace yourself against. So we bought a new ladder. This one’s a beast: when you stand it up its feet are about five feet apart. But it meant Steve could stand on the third step from the top rather than ON the top, which is much safer.

Next step: the fixtures. We looked at everything from track to linear suspension (those fancy cord-y things everyone has now) but we finally decided on cans. With white trim we thought they’d be pretty unobtrusive plus they match what’s in the bedrooms. We spent an hour or so at Lowes learning about remodel vs. new construction (they’re different) and IC rating (IC rated cans can just be poked up into the insulation, which is important if you have insulation, which, now, we do) –  and then I went online and ordered everything: 5 inch remodel IC rated cans from Lowes, and 5 inch white eyeball trim from Amazon. It all arrived promptly, and we hauled it north, and everything was going swimmingly until we opened the box and saw this:

That part where it says “CFL required”? Kinda worrisome, don’t you think, if you don’t want CFLs? We did. Here’s where things started to get a little hinky. I called Lowes’ customer service and explained the situation. The nice lady said that they only put the specs that the manufacturers provide them online, which must have been why there was NOTHING in the specs online that said anything about CFLs, but that if the box said CFLs and I didn’t want CFLs, I should bring them back. I left Steve up on the ladder and drove the hour to the closest Lowes. I returned the seven cans. Then I went to the lighting department, where I talked to the same guy who’d explained can lighting to us the week before. He said he didn’t have 5 inch IC rated remodel cans in stock but he would show me what to order. Then he went online and pulled up the exact same cans I’d just returned. I explained that the box said CFL only and he said no, these would take up to 75 watt and I ended up making him come over to the customer service area to look at the damned things to make sure. He didn’t have a good answer as to why the box said CFL and not 75 watt but apparently if you want to you can get some kind of insert to convert these into CFL. Whatever. I bought back the seven cans and drove the hour back home, past the river and sunny vineyards and golden rolling hills – not such a bad way to spend part of a weekend, actually. And when I got home, Steve had already started drilling holes in the ceiling.

Reader, if I were not already a fervent believer in the power of paint, the use of paint in French chateaus would have changed my mind. But in fact when it comes to the power of paint, I’m like the Cowardly Lion: I DO believe in paint; I DO believe in paint. So I didn’t need a lot of convincing. Still, I got some pretty cool ideas.

Here’s one of the simpler ones: use coordinated colors to pick out and emphasize layers of trim, such as molding at the top of a wall.

Granted, in a modest California ranch house, you might not have 36 different layers – but I think you could still employ the general principle. And here I love the combination of olives, mustards, gold, and wine.

Here’s another easy one. Here, paint is used to pick out trim and to highlight the colors in the wallpaper as well as the gold of the picture frame. It brings the whole room together in a cool way.

This one is a bit more challenging. There are two pieces to it. The first is a door. See how the paint colors are used to highlight the molding as well as the trim around the door? It’s hard to see from the photo but the door is not flat at all – each of the paint colors is picking out a physical layer.

Now, here’s the cool part. This  is a window right down the hall from the door. There is NOTHING in relief on this wall – it’s all flat, yet it’s painted to look just like the door and it actually totally fools you until you get up close and think, “Hey, that’s not molding! That’s FLAT.” At least, it fooled me. The paint is perfect, of course, with each line precise and no wobbly edges or smeary bits.

Here’s another idea: clouds on the ceiling.

By now, of course, we’ve all seen this. But think about it – the person who painted these clouds on the ceiling of an 18th century French chateau was probably the VERY FIRST PERSON to think of it – and that’s pretty cool. Plus, of course, the clouds are awesomely fluffy cotton balls, and the sky is a perfect French blue. Just because clouds on the ceiling is no longer a new idea, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.

Now here’s my personal favorite.

Now before you roll your eyes thinking “For heavens sake, who has a HARPSICHORD just sitting around waiting to be painted?” think about the principal that’s being demonstrated here. What I love about this is the idea of painting the INSIDE of something – something that might be seen only rarely, and would always surprise. And it doesn’t have to be something fancy, like a trompe l’oeil mural inside a harpsichord. Think of that lowly bathroom cabinet. Then think of that same cabinet with the inside of the door painted a smooth, glossy hot pink. Reader, I just might.

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