ORC Week 6: Cursing the Queen and Hailing the Halo

Jarrod looked over while I was typing this, saw the post title, and said “Are you writing Harry Potter fan fiction?” This is a quick post about one magical addition to our yard and one difficult eradication.

In 2016, our landscaper installed an assortment of native plants in our backyard.


In the mix were three plants that have since proven to be far too aggressive for our small garden plot: sneezeweed, goldenrod, and queen of the prairie. Those are the tall plants you can see in the back of this 2017 photo.

Garden 2017

These plants started taking over the bed, crowding out the variety of other plants, and toppling over from their own weight.

Navite Garden

For scale, here’s Jarrod standing behind the goldenrod in 2018: he’s 6’2″.

Goldenrod vs Jarrod

Early this spring, I decided it was time to rein it in. I started by digging up the huge patches of queen of the prairie.

Backyard Garden Early Spring

Then, when the goldenrod came in, I tore that up as well. You can see that in the back. I also upgraded our birdbath with a new one from Wayfair.

Goldenrod 2

It was a bummer to lose this several-year investment in plant growth, but… it had to go. I offered up the queen of the prairie on my neighborhood gardener Facebook group – no takers. They all probably know better!


The queen of the prairie is not letting her reign end easily. The root system is intense. I’ve been digging up new starts nearly every day for the past month and continually pulling out previously undiscovered roots.

Digging Up Queen of the Prairie

Today I threw some mulch down on the razed area. This season I will continue to keep the aggressive plants at bay and hope the other plants fill in the bald spot. I added some common bluestar, which I’m excited about – it’s not native to this region, but it is native to the US and the specs sound like a good fit for this plot.

Native Garden 2

Speaking of backyard aggressors: our bird feeder was getting ransacked by house sparrows, starlings, and red wing blackbirds. They’d empty out the feeder in a day. The house finches and gold finches never stood a chance. A friend told me she had great luck with the Magic Halo, so decided to give it a shot with a new Squirrel Buster finch feeder.

Two Goldfinch

It looks a little tin-foil-hattish, but it blends in well enough and it’s worth the slight visual clutter for how effective it is! The combination of the wires and sun bouncing off the nuts repels the house sparrows like, well, magic. Here’s a house sparrow getting totally flummoxed by the Magic Halo while a house finch dines.

Magic Halo

I have a suet feeder elsewhere in the yard for the other birds, and this is now a VIP lounge for finches. I’ll share more on the rest of our yard in another post – here are a few shots in the meantime!

Native Plant

Native Plant 2

A bee flew in when I photographing the shooting star plant.


You can check out all the other guest participants on the ORC website.

ORC Week 4: Our Bungalow’s Front Yard Landscaping

Hey, we’re out of the basement and back into the fresh air! This week’s One Room Challenge post is about our front yard landscaping. I believe this is the last view you saw of this area, when the plants were installed in spring 2016. Things have filled in since then, though it hasn’t been a 100% success. I’ll get into the hits and misses below.


At the beginning of May, I installed a row of paving stones. I prefer a clean edge along a garden bed. I used these Oldcastle Mini Beltis Tan Charcoal Concrete Retaining Wall Blocks from The Home Depot.

Front Yard Edging Installation

I’ve learned to install stones a little higher than I want them to be ultimately. They quickly settle into the ground.

Front Yard Edging After

This is how the landscaping bed looks now.

Front Yard Landscaping Bed

The company where I work previously used three ratings for annual performance reviews: you could be Among the Best, Getting Results, or Falling Behind. That is how I’ll rank my plants. I won’t get into their specs – I’ll link to The Morton Arboretum or Missouri Botanical Garden, if you want to read details. For reference: we’re Zone 5b, our soil is very heavy with clay, and this area gets sun exposure from the south and the west. All of our plants are native to the region.

Among the Best

Shrubby St. John’s wort (link): Great rounded shape, hilarious name.

St John

Prairie smoke (link): Solid performer. Very cool flowers without making a big deal about it. Spreads slowly – we have a lot more now than when we started, but they’re not taking over the bed.

Prairie Smoke Plant

They attract bees – a team player!

Prairie Smoke Bee

Getting Results

Bayberry (link): One of our compact cranberry viburnums died, and I replaced it with a bayberry. This is its second year on the job and it shows promise.


Bush honeysuckle (link): Amorphous shape, which fills in the space behind the serviceberry tree. Tends to spread a little aggressively but is manageable.


Star sedge (link): Fine when it stands up straight but tends to flop under pressure.

Star Sedge

This plant (link): I do not remember what this plant is. I look forward to its growth this year.


Falling Behind

Serviceberry tree (link): Disappointing! I was so excited about this tree when we hired it planted it, but I think it exaggerated its qualifications. All of the lower stems/branches break off, so the only leafing happens at the top, and that leafing is sparse. The house kinda feels like it’s up on its haunches, so I really wanted something to soften this corner, draw up the eye, and ease into the house.

Serviceberry Tree

The serviceberry trees I see on the North Park University campus (just north of our house) are bare on their lower half, so I think this is common. If I had known that, I would have chosen a different tree.

Cranberry viburnum (link): As I mentioned above, one of our five shrubs died for reasons unknown. The remaining four have always struggled, and now they’re under attack by viburnum leaf beetles!

Cranberry Virburnum Beetles

These pernicious larvae arrived in Chicago only within the past few years, and cranberry viburnum are highly susceptible to them. They have decimated our shrub leaves – one of the shrubs is a ghost now.

Cranberry Virburnum Beetle

Cranberry Virburnum

The landscaper we’ve worked with recommended we spray the shrubs with a mixture of water, vegetable oil, and dish soap. We did that this past weekend, and it seems to have worked: the larvae on the leaves are dead now. Time will tell if the shrubs are dead as well!

You can check out all the other guest participants on the ORC website.

Our Clean, Organized, and Practical Unfinished Basement

Now that you’ve read about our basement flood and the makeunder that predated it, it’s time for a full tour of this clean and organized workhorse. I’m most proud of two things here: it is super functional for our needs, and it is outfitted with storage solutions that were purchased used and/or cheap (or, even better, free). I’ll include links to things I bought as an FYI, but please know that I don’t think getting organized requires an expensive storage system or a full suite of matching bins.

I’ll start with these fisheye photos to give you an idea of the full space and then move around each area. All of the photos in this post are functional, not pretty – just like the space itself.

Basement Pano

You can see in these photos the one area of painted brick that’s flaked away because of efflorescence. Otherwise, our paint job has held up great for five years.

Basement Pano 2

During demo, we left some studs in place as well as the middle walls because they hold electrical conduit and they help demarcate zones.

Basement Pano 3

Basement Pano 4

Settle in – this is a long post!

Jarrod’s adventure zone

On the weekends, I usually work on the house and Jarrod goes on outdoor adventures in and around Chicago: biking, kayaking, birding, skiing, etc. This is his base camp.

Basement Adventure Station

Yes, those are roller skates on the shelf above; it’s the traditional gift for a man’s 40th birthday. Bench acquired for free from Northwestern University’s Surplus Property Exchange; tub below for shoes.

Shoe Bin

Jarrod’s bike is on a stand that holds it steady when he’s loading up his panniers (or “paninis” as I call them).

Basement Bike Station

I mounted a piece of scrap wood above the window to store his cross-country skis.

Ski Storage

Here’s the back door; I tore off some trim after we painted and haven’t gotten around to touching it up. Step ladder on a hook. I’m always a big proponent of keeping stuff off the ground wherever I can, and the basement flood reinforced that instinct.

Basement Door

Pencil sharpener and extension cord.

Pencil Sharpener

Laundry room

Not much to say here that wasn’t already covered in Basement Laundry Room Before and After. Fact: that project is one of my most visited and pinned posts, which is what encouraged me to share a full tour. I’m glad people appreciate practical content as much as picture-perfect content.

Basment Laundry Room 2

That rolling cart works as a folding station and a holding area for stuff I’m washing at the sink. Our sewer backup definitely did not abide by the posted “Do Not Pee Pee in Here” sign. Rude! (The explanation for the sign is in the laundry room post.)

Basement Bikes

Assorted less-used cleaning tools (link to similar rack) – our most frequently used cleaning gear is in the mudroom. My bike, Jarrod’s surplus bike, and the commercial-grade phone line hub installed by a previous owner for unknown reasons.

This area is on the other side of the furnace. Shelves purchased off Craigslist, tall trashcan to corral gangly things, and the dollhouse given to us by a college friend (hi, Jen!) – when someone offers you a dollhouse, you say yes.

Basement Storage Area

Just an old photo of Lola I like.


Back to the tour: I cannot stress enough the importance of corralling your stuff.

Paint Bins

Storage shelf zone

All of these shelving units were purchased off Craigslist, except the plastic one which was left here by the previous owner.

Basement Storage Room

Basement Shelves

I keep tools in plastic milk crates I’ve collected for free over the years – they’re nice and sturdy (link to similar crates). Baby gate left here by previous owner and saved by me in case, I dunno, we ever need to corral a dog or someone else’s child or something.

Basement Storage Shelves

Milk Crate Tool Storage 3

I stick BBQ skewers into partially-used caulk tubes.

Caulk Tub

Corral! Your! Stuff!

Project Supplies

Potting shelves = proof positive I’m turning into my mother (as I’ve mentioned before). Just looking at this collection of planting containers makes me happy.

Plant Potting Shelf

My work area

This giant work table is usually covered in some in-progress project. Long stretches of trim, lumber, etc. are stored below.

Basement Work Table

I built the table using these sawhorse brackets, an old door, and a sheet of plywood.

Sawhorse Storage

Potting soil in an IKEA SORTERA bin.

Soil Container

My miter saw is on a workbench I built using this Midwest Manufacturing Workmaster Workbench from Menards. I customized it in a few ways. If you’re logged into Instagram, I think this stories link will work. I made platforms for either side of the saw, and I built the bench so the saw section is portable.

Basement Saw Bench

Like so! Big fan of these Toughbilt foldable sawhorses, by the way.

Outdoor Saw

I mounted a power strip on the side for easy access to plugging stuff in, and my Ryobi battery charger on the front.

Workbench Power Strip

Stud Grabber Extension Cord

Laundry basket for wood scraps.

Spare Wood Laundry Basket

Bin for shop vacuum attachments.

Shop Vac Storage

What about that sweet metal hook? Glad you asked. It’s a Studgrabber and I love it. No tools required for installation – it just bites into the wood and can hold a lot of weight.

Stud Grabber

I take back what I said about not needing to buy things to get organized: everyone should buy Studgrabbers. Get them for your mom as a belated Mother’s Day gift; get them for your dad for Father’s Day; get them for your nieces’ and nephews’ Christmas stockings. There is no one in your life who would not appreciate grabbing a stud with these ingenious hooks. (My friend Ben makes fun of me because he says my blog is 70% about hooks. He’s not wrong. It me.)

IKEA STENSTORP island hack

I bought an IKEA STENSTORP island off Craigslist nearly 10 years ago for our previous apartment’s kitchen. (IKEA doesn’t sell this model anymore; link to the similar TORNVIKEN.) We don’t need it in our current kitchen, so I turned it into a workbench. (Yes, I have a lot of workbenches. I do a lot of work. This was my first one and I acquired the others later. Don’t you judge me!)

IKEA Tool Bench

I splurged on some matching clear storage boxes from The Container Store. I put the cart on these tri-wheel rolling dolly things and mounted a peg board to the back. I use the braces to hang long stuff like my level and yardstick.

IKEA Kitchen Island Pegboard

The pegboard keeps tools and supplies visible and accessible.

IKEA Kitchen Island Pegboard 2

I replace my utility knife blade religiously. I don’t want to throw the used blade directly into the trash, so I kept leaving them all over my project areas. Solution: I made a sharps disposal bin from an old Rubbermaid container.

Sharps Container

Okay, one final product recommendation: I far prefer this Bucket Boss over a tool box for lugging tools. I keep all of my MVPs in here and tote it around the house. Five stars; two thumbs up.

Bucket Boss

Phew, and that’s the end of this three-hour tour!

Long-term plan

As I mentioned in my House Goals for 2019 and Beyond post, I hope to finish half of the basement with a guest bedroom and bathroom. Currently, our house has two bedrooms and they share the upstairs bathroom. This works a-ok for us, but when we host guests it feels a little too close for comfort. It would also be good for our property value to add an additional bed and bath, and a den area would be fun for a cozy sofa and giant TV. Don’t worry, I will not pursue this plan if it does not also allow for plenty of project space as well: the unfinished half is just as important to me as the finished half.

Here’s an imaginary floor plan:


I plan to approach the basement renovation in two phases: 1) getting architectural drawings and installing a waterproofing system toward the end of 2020 or early 2021, and 2) finishing the space in 2022ish. I am super excited about hiring an architect to draw up plans – I’ve never worked with an architect before. I want to know the end goal before I proceed with having drain tile and a sump pump installed (like so).

Then, we’ll wait and watch for at least a year to make sure we don’t have any flooding or sewer backup issues. The worst case scenario would be to finish the space and then get water damage. That’s happened to several Chicagoans I know this spring, including Kim and Scott over at Yellow Brick Home. If we do see any signs of water, we’ll keep the basement entirely unfinished, which would be a-ok as well.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Unfinishing a Finished Basement

Last weekend, we had a sewer backup that spurred us to clean the heck out of our basement. I plan to share a tour of what the space looks like currently, but first I want to backtrack to 2015. When we bought our bungalow, half of the basement was finished and half was unfinished. I covered the unfinished half in my Basement Laundry Room Before and After post; this post is about the work we did to unfinish the finished side.



Our real estate listing said “nice basement with 1 bedroom in basement.” I think we can all agree that statement is 1) redundant and 2) overly generous. That is the soil stack in the middle of the room – our house’s main waste line.


Our inspector’s moisture meter told us the drywall was damp, and our eyeballs told us the space was finished poorly. It was a wet mess. (Let’s all start using “wet mess” instead of “hot mess.”)

Basement Inspection

Our inspector recommended we gut the perimeter walls, which we tackled the week we moved in. (The image above is from our inspection report, by the way; I don’t think I could ever write the phrase “Much moisture at several areas.”) We hired out for the first phase of demo in the interest of getting the wet mess hauled away as quickly as possible.

Basement Wall

The plastic vapor barrier behind the drywall created a waterlogged insulation situation. “Nice basement”!

Waterlogged Insulation

The contractor took care of removing the drywall, insulation, and carpet. It cost around $500 – definitely worth it.

Truck Haul

This poor dummy broke his elbow in a self-caused solo bike crash – sweeping left-handed added insult to injury, given how proud he is of his usual floor cleanup game.


Over the following two months, we worked to make the basement as clean and bright as possible. We removed the studs around the bedroom and the perimeter of the basement.

Stud Saw

Usually I’m the one operating the power tools, but Jarrod’s baldness came in handy for using a potentially hair-singeing rotary tool to grind the nails out of the concrete floor.

Nail Removal

The walls were filthy.


SO filthy.


There were several rounds of wall and floor washing with bleach, TSP, and Simple Green. I don’t know what in the hell this Babadook situation was.


Basement Demo

Basement Brick Wall Before

After the walls were scraped and scrubbed, we did two coats of primer and two coats of paint to get us to a nice, clean blank slate.

Basement Brick Painted

Basement Progress

Thanks for walking down memory lane with me – it was a pretty gross stroll. Next up: the current state of our clean, organized basement.

ORC Week 3: Basement Flood

This week’s post is not what I had planned because of an unexpected Hauslermo catastrophe. Those of you who follow me on Instagram already know this story, but I wanted to document here for posterity.

First, some background: when we bought our house, we learned our connection to the city’s sewer system was blocked by tree roots. We have a mature tree in our front parkway, and it had invaded the sewer line. The sewer line isn’t a continuous stretch of pipe – it’s clay/terra cotta sections pieced together (like this), which provides easy entry points for roots.

In August 2015, I paid ASAP Plumbing $2,400 to have something called a “cleanout station” installed. A cleanout station (AKA clean-out pipe) gives plumbers easier access to your home’s main sewage line, so they can rod it out – e.g. run a machine down there to remove obstructions in the clay pipe.

Cleanout Station

I do not like the term “adulting” but if I were ever to use it, it would be in this situation. Paying over two thousand dollars for sewer line rodding is some real adult bullshit. Here’s a photo from our plumber’s Yelp profile because Jack C. did a better job of documenting this work than I did.

Cleanout Station 4

Jumping from August 2015 to May 2020: I took last Friday off work so I could go to a nursery on an off-peak day. Illinois recently allowed garden centers to reopen for business, and they’ve been really busy.


If you’re based in Chicagoland, Urhausen Greenhouses in Lincolnwood is a hidden gem. The plants they sell have been grown on-site in their two-acre greenhouse. They don’t have shrubs and trees, but they have lots of specialty plants I don’t see elsewhere, like native plants.


The prices are a little high, but it’s worth it to support a local place – especially since it’s so pleasing to explore a giant greenhouse.


Here’s my haul:


Back at home, I was excited to spend the afternoon planting.


I went down to the basement to get a hanging planter and…. discovered a pond.


There was 3+ inches of standing water throughout the entire space.


Chicago received a biblical amount of rain this month – especially the night of  May 17 – and the sewer system overflowed. For reference: we have a river dock a few blocks away where Jarrod puts in his kayak. This is what it usually looks like:


And this is what it looked like last weekend:


We’ve always had a small amount of seepage around our foundation, but this sewer backup was an entirely different situation. We frantically Googled for an hour and learned 1) we should not wade into the water in case it was electrified, and 2) there was nothing we could do without a plumber. Tom arrived first thing Saturday morning.


They rodded out our sewer connection via the front yard cleanout station.


I went to the basement and heard the water rushing down our floor drains. It was like someone pulled the plug on a giant bathtub. It took less than 2 minutes for all the water to recede. Turn up volume in this video – others have described it as “something from Stranger Things” and “the sound of my depression.”

We were lucky: our basement is unfinished (technically, it had been finished, but we gutted it – something I’ll get into another post) and most of our things are up on shelves. The stuff we had to toss wasn’t special or expensive…


… except for this customized Caboodles case: it was special and expensive for this 1980s pre-teen.



We emptied out the basement onto our lawn.


And then we dragged our hose into the basement and hosed down this floor.


One of Jarrod’s work-study jobs at Grinnell College was mopping the dining hall. He’s pretty cocksure about his mopping skills. THIS WAS HIS MOMENT TO SHINE. We bought him an industrial mop bucket as a special treat. You know what’s hard to find in a global pandemic? Disinfectant. We were lucky to get one of the last bottles of bleach on the shelf at Home Depot.


The cleanout station I mentioned earlier? We definitely should have had that serviced at least once since we had it installed. I am usually on top of home maintenance, but I dropped the ball on this one. Please let my tale of woe be a cautionary tale for you, dear reader.


All in all, this ended up being a best-case worst-case scenario. It cost us a sleepless night spent worrying, a $150 plumber visit, and a hard day’s work. Now we have a very clean basement with less junk in it. I plan to write a Part 2 post tomorrow to show off the very clean basement that most likely no one cares about but me. Get excited!

You can check out all the other guest participants on the ORC website.