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.

Front Yard Painting and Landscaping

My 2016 exterior blitzkrieg concludes here, in our front yard. When we bought the house, it looked dated and lifeless. The awning darkened the front (both inside and outside), the bushes didn’t offer much curb appeal, and the siding and stucco were in bad need of paint. Oh, and a section of our roof was on the walkway.


Julian Collins has been our go-to guy for several projects since buying the house. He demoed our basement and hauled it away, he painted our exterior, and he helped us remove this hideous awning. I highly recommend him anytime you need extra muscle – he’s fast, affordable, and insanely hardworking.


Jarrod and Julian conquered this awning – my contribution was suggesting they use a board to hold it up and push it away. What I lack in muscle I make up for in smarts.


Removing the awning made a huge difference in our living room and sunroom.

Awning Before.jpg


Our landscapers dug out the bushes in early spring, and then it was time for house painting. (The landscapers took out that dead light post as well, after I had an electrician sever the power connection.)

Front Yard Progress.jpg

I came to a decision on the exterior paint color quickly, which isn’t usually like me! I tried three swatches and had a clear winner: Gunsmith Gray from Benjamin Moore (the bottom swatch). It’s a gray-green; Benjamin Moore calls it a “deep, blackened gray.” The color is from their Williamsburg Collection. The historical vibe works well on our 1913 bungalow: it contrasts the red brick really nicely, and I feel like it adds some much-needed life to the front of the house. The white is off-the-shelf Benjamin Moore white. We used MoorGard Low Lustre Finish in white for the trim, and MoorLife Flat Finish on everything else.

Paint Swatches.jpg

Julian power washed the exterior and then returned the next day to paint. He charged around $800 for everything: the siding, trim, stucco, and back mudroom. He and a helper knocked it out in a single day, working from early morning until after the sun set.

Siding Washing.jpg

When Julian found out I had bought Benjamin Moore Regal Select paint, he said “Thank you, thank you.” Apparently the coverage is significantly better than Behr, which makes his job easier. I definitely noticed the difference in quality when we used it on the garage. So, I’d recommend it and will use it again. If you’re on the north side of Chicago, JC Licht on Irving Park is a great paint store.

Painting Progress 2.jpg

After painting came landscaping. Here’s the plan Monica from Red Stem put together:

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 1.36.31 PM.png

We used all native plants and shrubs, as we did in the backyard. We disconnected our northern gutter downspout from the city sewer system, extended it to the garden area, and buried it so provides water to the garden area. (“DS” in the diagram above – we didn’t end up doing the southern one because we didn’t want to dig under the sidewalk.) This guide was helpful for us as first-time homeowners: Understanding Your Sewer: An Introduction to the Chicago Area’s Combined Sewer Systems. Did you know there are no ninja turtles in Chicago’s sewer system? That’s unique to New York.

Serviceberry Planting.JPG

Of all the things we planted, I’m most excited about the multi-stemmed serviceberry tree. It flowers in the spring, produces berries in the summer, and turns bright reddish-orange in the fall. It will grow as tall as our front porch roofline. The cranberry viburnum bushes flower and berry as well, and they’ll grow at least 6 feet tall.

Landscaping Front Yard Progress.jpg

The Red Stem crew was great. Really nice guys, who shared a meal on our new patio and were so considerate of our yard. I love this photo with Doozy overseeing the job from the window.

Front Yard Before 2.JPG

Landscaping Front Yard Progress 2.jpg

Plants and sedges are interspersed between the bushes. Everything will fill in and fill out in the coming years. I will also replace and enlarge the windows someday with something more bungalow-appropriate (similar to this).

Landscaping Front Yard Progress 3.jpg

One last before and after:

House Front.jpg


And that is where I’ll leave you for now. I’ll return in early January with a list of everything I hope to tackle in 2017. Happy New Year!

Backyard Patio, Painting, and Landscaping

The 2016: Year of the Exterior blogging bonanza continues with painting, patio installation, and landscaping. This is where we started:

Deck Before.JPG

Let’s dive in!

Lipstick on a Pig

Here’s the situation with the tacked-on room at the back of the house: it used to be an exterior porch. At some point, it was enclosed – very, very poorly. So poorly that they didn’t even finish the job, even though they started it years ago. The drywall on the interior was never mudded (you can get a glimpse of it through our kitchen door). The proportions of the windows don’t make any sense. The siding was installed totally incorrectly (visible screws!). It freezes in the winter and bakes in the summer. It’s a cobbled-together garbage mess… but it’s sturdy, and it’s not unsafe. Fixing it will essentially require that we tear it down and rebuild it ($20k-ish?), which isn’t in the budget for the foreseeable future and simply isn’t a priority. It may never be. It functions fine for what it is (a mudroom), and my goal was to make it look as decent as possible for as little money as possible.

Which is a long way of saying: I put some lipstick on that pig.

When I posted about re-routing our dryer vent, I mentioned that it previously vented under the back porch: that’s what led to the mold you see on the siding. I scrubbed it and power washed it.

Mudroom Siding Before.JPG

I hired a pro to paint the front of our house (more on that in the next post). I planned to paint the mudroom myself, but we were on a tight schedule with only a few days of cooperative weather, so I added $200 to our painting bill. Worth it, especially since there were ladders involved.

Behold the wonders of paint.

Mudroom Exterior Progress 3.JPG

The light is from Amazon (Outdoor Aluminum Barn Light). I installed it myself, and it fits perfectly under the eave.

Jarrod and I did paint the garage on our own:

Garage Painting.JPG

Goodbye Deck, Hello Patio

The existing deck had to go. It was rotten and splintering. It also had no stairs, so you couldn’t access it directly from the yard.

I stressed a little about the decision between building a new deck vs. putting in a patio, but it was pretty clear that a patio was the right choice for us. A patio makes maximum use of our available yard space. The deck took up far more room than just its footprint – it loomed over the yard such that no one (people nor plants) would want to hang out around the perimeter. For example, there was a good 3 feet between the fence and the deck that was wasted space.

Deck and Fence.JPG

I chose Brussels Block paving stones from Unilock. We used the Limestone color, laid in a random-ish pattern. I like the tumbled, worn finish. It’s a nice break from the brick city that is our house.


I try to be upfront about costs around here: I hope it’s helpful, not obnoxious. Paver patios are incredibly expensive – there’s just no way around it. To be very honest, this luxury wouldn’t have been in our budget had we not made some bonus money by renting our house out for filming (see Let’s All Watch Easy on Netflix). Since that money was unexpected, it felt like ~fun~ money, and it seemed fitting to put it toward something we really wanted.

Which is a long way of saying: we paid $6,800 for the patio plus the corner seat wall. That includes installation and all materials.

This patio could very well outlive us. If we spend decades in this house, it will have been a smart move. If something unexpected happens and we move in 5 years, it will have been a foolish purchase and a cautionary tale. $$ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ $$

Thanks to our drive-through gate, the crew was able to back up right next to the deck.

Deck Demo Truck.JPG

Deck Demo.JPG

Demo went very quickly. They sprayed the patio outline (that’s a pano photo – it’s not curved) and then dug it out.

Patio Chalk Lines.JPG

Patio Dig Out.JPG

Next came a gravel and sand base, which was compacted.

Patio Gravel Base.JPG

I went to work the next day and when I came back we had a patio. Magic! Well, kinda magic. There was still a lot of work to do.

Mudroom Exterior Progress 2.JPG

Another Coat of Lipstick on the Pig

Again, my goal was to make the mudroom as decent as possible for as little money as possible. I’ve done a few things to make it look more intentional, and have a few things left to do.

I started by washing and painting the wallboard below the beam.

Mudroom Exterior Progress 4.JPG

Then I bought two pieces of cheap lattice, which I cut to fit.


I stained them using Ready Seal and a pump sprayer.

Lattice Staining.JPG

And then I affixed them to the wall using decking screws.

Mudroom Lattice.JPG

Yes, it looks weird to have a sliding door to nowhere. I’m not sweating it. I actually see these a lot around Chicago – people use them as big back windows with Juliet balconies. In 2017, I’m going to put up a railing, plant some tall grass/sedges, and make a better area for our grill.

Plants, Plants, Plants!

As low-grade hippies, Jarrod and I decided to go with native landscaping. That means all of the plant varieties we used grow naturally in midwest prairies and woodlands. They contribute to the ecosystem of birds, bees, and other animals that live in Chicago. (If you’re interested, see the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Landscaping with Native Plants.) We hired Monica of Red Stem Native Landscapes. She was great to work with. In the future, we’ll tackle smaller landscaping projects on our own, but there was so much work to be done that it made sense to get help.

As someone who loves plants, I cannot tell you exciting it was to have a truck full of trees and shrubs arrive. Some of these were for the backyard, some of them were for the front, and some were for other people that I wanted to steal.

Landscaping Delivery.JPG

We got an Armstrong Maple for the back corner. These trees grow fast and tall – but not wide – which makes it perfect for a Chicago backyard.


We put shrubs and plants around the patio. They’ll fill in and envelop the space, softening the hard edges of the patio. The Blackhaw Viburnum shrub in the corner, for example, will grow at least 10 feet tall.


Here’s a shot after the shrubs went it, but before the plants arrived:

Patio After.JPG

For fun, let’s compare that to a before:

Sideyard Before 3.JPG

Yep, that’s better. Let’s keep moving. When the baby plants arrived, we still hadn’t totally finished painting, because painting is the very worst thing in the entire world.

Baby Plants.JPG

The plants weren’t much to look at during the toddler stage. Most of their energy is spent establishing roots. Monica said the rule of thumb with native plant growth is “First year sleep, second year creep, and third year leap.”

Toddler Plants.JPG

With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the growth and flowering we saw in our first year.

Toddler Plants 2.JPG


Ooof, this post was a beast! Thanks for sticking around until the end. See you tomorrow for the final post: the front yard.