Here at the ol’ Sparks Ranch (well, just a ranch-style house, but we are in Texas after all), DIY projects happen for a variety of reasons, but there are three main motivators that have the best chance of eventually getting me involved in them. The first is that I get, ahem, the spark of an idea for something that could be better than it is. The second is that I don’t often have the moolah to purchase such an item or bit of action ready-made and fabulous. And the third is that sometimes just the right piece of the puzzle arrives on my doorstep to nudge me into  motion after all.

These three inspirations converged recently when my longstanding desire to spiff up our built-in bar–an item I’d never been accustomed to having in my home, but what the heck, it came with the house–complicated by my unwillingness to spend much on the project, met with the gift of our renovating next-door neighbor’s removal of the built-in bottle and stemware rack from the bar in her house. (Thank you, LM!) As our houses are of similar vintage and share close cousins of the woodwork stain variety, the ejected cabinet was a close enough match to those already in the lower half of our bar to make a fine fit.

What began as a modest set of lower cabinets, a set-in [and nearly stainless] bar sink with a cheap but functional faucet, a nasty very fake looking ‘wood’ laminate countertop and some glass shelves on a simple bracket style rack is now, I think a reasonable bit better: it’s both a fair amount more functional and a little less sketchy looking, and I think I won’t be quite so worried about keeping it closed constantly as I had been in its shaggier state.


Homely yet functional. Kind of like me. But I always want to be a little better, so why shouldn’t my house!


Now, with more storage! And a little bit more finished look, despite its humble beginnings.

What I did: first, I remembered that I’m now over half a century old and therefore should not lift a couple-hundred-pounds cabinet up and bolt it into place solo, something I would undoubtedly have been dumb enough to try in times past. Okay, and I was silly enough to lift the thing onto the counter by myself before I decided that not being hoist on my own petard was a really appealing concept. So after I cleared all of the previous bits out of the spot and plugged up the screw holes from the old shelves, I hired a carpenter friend to come and heft the oak box up, herk it into position, and bolt it generally in place with me. I’m cheap but not [entirely] insane.

I masked off the space and did the most gruesome part of the job: prepping and spray painting the countertop and the lower half of the walls, along with the sink and faucet, with my old friend Hammerite paint in the bronzy brown hammered finish. The walls and hardware (including the light switch and outlet) were all in extremely rough shape and it seemed to me the better part of valor to just embrace the rugged look and be a tiny bit old-school industrial in style. Then I brought in all of the scraps of trim and moldings I had left over from our previous reno projects here, along with my little hand-saw and miter setup, and pieced together some legs to support the front of the already weighty empty cabinet and horizontal supports for shelves over the sink, cut two short shelves out of a couple of old bookshelves no longer in use elsewhere, and then trimmed out the whole conglomeration. Under all of the paint, if you look too closely, you’ll see that it’s one wild concatenation of mismatched trim profiles and caulked, spackled, sanded and glued odd parts, but I did my best to pull it all together with the finishes by painting the bottom half all in Hammerite and the top half (including the ceiling) in plenty of primer and a finish coat of satin latex in simple cream.

I borrowed a couple of unused curtain rod finials to hide some of the weirder joinery at the corners and loaded the cabinets, and I believe I’m now within an nth of Done with this particular DIY. Or, if I’m to be honest, I suppose I should admit it’s DIM (Did It Myself–and yes, dimly enough). I just took the globe off of the ceiling light and stuck a reproduction Edison bulb in the fixture for now; eventually, I’ll want to either move the fixture itself or get a swag to relocate the bulb over the sink, so it doesn’t sit right next to the wine rack and heat it up, however briefly I keep the light turned on in there. And I’m going to put some of those little chalkboard labels on the front of the ‘new’ cabinet in those flat spaces so I can write in what’s in the rack and change it as the inventory changes. At the moment, I’m done with what I have materials on hand to do, so I think I’ll just enjoy it. Probably ought to sit down and have a drink!

Cheers! Sláinte! Salut! Prost! Egészségedre! Here’s Mud in Your Eye! Skål!photo





Mormor's swing, tucked into a corner under the maple tree that in springtime was full of naturalized trilliums, bleeding heart, wild currant, Scilla and other northwest treasures, and in summer, covered with Clematis durandii from foot to arbor . . .

This coming week I get to have consultations for bids on redoing our yard landscape! As I’ve plotted the Q&A lists extensively over time, I have been more and more recollecting my mother’s gardening style and values, and beyond that, returning to her father’s–Gramps’s. Their influences remain deeply embedded in my own ethos of gardening, to be sure.

I won’t be able to strictly replicate either of their styles or efforts, nor should I, since neither the climate and conditions of my current home nor my own personal imprint would make it useful or meaningful to do so. But what was truly valued by both of them in the general sense was upheld in their methods and the lovely and personal and hospitable outcomes of both because it was about combining the sensible and practical with the sort of building and design that would enable them to do more of the tasks of gardening that they each enjoyed, and fewer of those that they didn’t. In short, they were both ‘sustainable’ garden advocates long before there was such a popular trend, and they still both chose plants and arrangements and additions to the yard that suited their sentiments and likes.photoFor Gramps, of course, there was a strong influence of frugality that came from being first an immigrant (and even before that, presumably, from being raised by typically scrupulous Norwegian savers) and then a hard-working General Motors employee (he worked on the crew that produced the first amphibious vehicles). After all of that he was an independent farmer, mainly of sheep, and then also a longtime carpenter and home builder. He was never in any get-rich business, and he appreciated old-fashioned things and earthy things, so it wasn’t a stretch for him to look with his carpenter’s eye and see in his shed the makings of all sorts of fine pasture fencing, outbuildings, picnic tables, benches and more.


Gramps's compost bins, quite beautiful in their own right and certainly very practical, as well as the models for Mom's own bins later . . . and, perhaps, mine yet to come . . .

His idea of plantings began with the practical as well, so if there was any space at all there was always a beautiful kitchen garden with corn, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, rhubarb, and all of that sort of loveliness, and between that and his fishing trips and raising lamb there was a lot of good eating. But beyond raising fine fruit and vegetables on his property, furnished with rich home-cooked compost from his lovely row of hand-built bins, Gramps did have a graceful nature-inspired aesthetic sensibility, capitalizing on the canopy of majestic Douglas-firs and filling in with the native understory treasury of dogwood and trilliums (the source, of course, of Mom’s first ones), azaleas and rhododendrons, ferns and primroses and bleeding hearts and yellow and fuchsia-colored wild violets. For a person who gruffly eschewed frivolity in the main, he had a mighty tender, bleeding heart of his own when it came to the beauty he saw in nature, and he capitalized on that very well in his garden.

His daughter learned from it, and being more overtly sentimental, added yet another layer of appreciation for those marvels and jewels of the natural world that she could nurture to their fullest expression in her own garden and yard, wherever she lived. She adopted her father’s practical and often laborious attentions to getting the most out of the existing landscape and quickly put her own imprint on it and enriched it over time to the degree that her yard was always rightfully an enviable small park for visitors’ delight. By the time I finished college and then spent three years working near to and therefore boarding with my grandparents, thanks to the ridiculously affordable living there–then finished grad school and started working near my parents’ place and moved back to take advantage of the ridiculously affordable living there (anybody sense a theme? I blame the genetic link to Gramps’s frugality)–I had a much greater appreciation myself for both what it took to create and maintain such glorious properties and how much respecting nature’s own local inclinations would be a value-added approach to healthy, sustainable, logical, creative and gorgeous design.photoI had the bonus, while living at my parents’ again, of not only the privacy and flexibility afforded me by their frequent travel for his work, but the opportunity to practice my own incipient garden design skills both while following Mom around and learning the names and natures of things and while taking things into my own hands whenever they went out of town for any length of time. First of all, having learned a couple of useful things about how to treat some of their plants, I practiced my sculptural pruning skills on them, opening up the lacy umbrella of a laceleaf maple, making faux bonsai out of some of their smaller evergreens, and limbing up tree trunks to clean and open up the space for all of the pretty understory things Mom had brought in as starts from relatives’ gardens, from her trading with friends, and from various nursery expeditions over the years. It was during this time that I especially fell in love with trees. The craggy Garry oaks native to that area are a fairly uncommon yet extraordinarily lovely and impressive variety and I nurtured a seedling or two myself along the way in hopes that sometime long after I’m dead they too will be magnificent and grand old trees sheltering their homes and their denizens like the massive ones already in town.photoHere in Texas, it’s the two stately post oaks and that lithe red oak in back that endeared our home to us at first notice, along with our two splendid Bradford pear trees. There’s quite the community of sweet oak seedlings sprouting in their shade, and I hope very much that I can manage (with lots of help and advice from the local experts, of course) to relocate a number of them to foster a natural-style mini-grove in a back quadrant of our property over the many years to come. That will help create a fitting foundation for the whole wild, native and well-adapted collection of plants intended to fan out from all of that into the rest of the property. Fun times ahead!

In addition, I love to incorporate some traditionally indoor materials into my gardens so they feel a little more like an extension of the house and invite leisurely visits. I’m thinking of things like the burnished brass chandelier you’ve seen tiny glimpses of in previous garden photos, a little cozy kitchen-style seating on the patio, and a bench or chairs for shaded stopping on the front porch as guests arrive for a gathering. But although I see lots of lovely yard swings around town and love them, I never see people sitting in them–it’s almost always too terribly hot and often very bug-pestered here–so there won’t likely be an investment of money and labor to create a swing like the arbor swing (above) that I designed and my brother-in-law built with my semi-able assistance, to surprise Mom with a little long-fostered-wish fulfillment, while she and Dad were off on one of their longer expeditions.photo

Still, I do want our yard to invite exploration and to be particularly attractive from all angles inside our air-conditioned house, year round. So many possible ways to accomplish that, that I am excited to see what I can learn and be inspired by, even from a first conversation with each of the landscapers who will visit here this week. I suspect I’ll need to be getting out all of the tools I have, and then some, and it’ll take a bit of a while to get the whole project well and truly underway. I know I’m a little rusty at some of this, having lived with tiny yards for quite some time before buying this house, and will have to relearn much and discover many new things in my new climate. But oh, how invigorating to begin!