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Bring on the Big Machines!

Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Mini-excavator at work! Lane Johns got this machine for his high school graduation present. That is some graduation present. He seems to enjoy running it. Who wouldn't? I'm standing inside my bedroom on the lower level, watching from the open sliding door. I can't help but squeal as the huge machine does its work right in front of me. Love to watch excavators at work. The precision their operators achieve blows my mind. 

The concrete pad is transported in pieces in the scoop of the skid steer to a waiting dump truck. At this point Curtis is totally cool with the demolition. He barely turns his head as the machines roar past. You don't find many dogs like Curtis. For my money he's a little too cool. I was backing across the lawn in my Subaru last week and didn't see him out my blind spot where he was lying, flat out, on the grass. I was shocked to see him there, unmoving. After I parked the car, I walked over to him. His tail thumped on the ground. By the tracks, my wheels had passed eight inches from his nose. 

I knew you wouldn't run over me, Ma.

                    Curtis Loew! Don't be so sure! Your Ma is getting old and blinder every day!

The 6" thick concrete pad outside the bedroom proved to be a different beast than the little thin one we had poured off to the side for the Groanhouse. It gave up hard. Real hard. Turns out it had rebar all through it, and that rebar went back into the house foundation. We were trying to find out if that might be the case; I even called the foreman of the job now 24 years ago, and he said he thought the patio rebar shouldn't go back into the house foundation. Well... There were some awful noises as the concrete was torn out, the worst sort of wailing squeal made when my big set of windows bowed outward under the pressure.  That sound brought me running down the stairs. The windows, unbelievably, were tamped back into place with a hammer, and everything works perfectly. I never would have believed that could happen, but it did. I didn't catch that on video, but there was this:

I guess the moral of the story is what an unexpectedly big deal it turned out to be to put a lean-to greenhouse on my home. I was unprepared for all the stuff that had to happen (ripping out existing concrete); for the duration and the intensity of it. I have managed to keep up with the expense of it (another great big eye opener) and ride with it, and I've tried to enjoy the process along the way. 
My least favorite part is the waiting in between spurts of progress.

By the next evening, this was the sight that greeted me out my bedroom window. Disorienting. Very disorienting. Because the bare earth quickly became a morass with the frequent rains and gutter spillover from the plugged downspout, I could no longer use my patio doors. I realized how used I had become to strolling out into the backyard, and how much I loved walking right out of the bedroom into nature.

Stemple Gutters had to come and unplug and then re-route the downspout that used to come down the west wall of the house. I was intrigued by the ingenious curve he had to describe to get it to turn the corner, and decided I loved the way it looked. Kind of like a sausage curl on a lady's temple. A lady with a small black nose and great big teeth.

I was especially grateful that Eric put a temporary extension on the downspout to keep water from pouring
into the construction site. We had about a two-week delay because the mud kept collapsing when they tried to excavate the footers. Ugh! I love a wet summer, but this one kind of got in our way.

Curtis did everything he could to keep morale high. He liked to snoopervise from the high deck or from under the Japanese maple off to the side.

We waited a long time for the ground to dry out enough to be safely excavated for the footers. 

It would all be worth it, I promised myself. Very much worth it!

Finally it was dry enough for Lane and Stone to come back and dig the 2' deep trench for the footers. The walls would no longer collapse. Rebar was laid, and the form was ready for the concrete. 

Now walking out the bedroom doors posed a serious hazard! Glad I'm not a sleepwalker...Bill would have been in big trouble! I'd have had to lock that door.

Goodbye, Groanhouse! Down It Comes!

Sunday, September 24, 2023


 On the 17th of July, I said a final goodbye to the Groanhouse with a grim smile and a shake of my head.  I couldn't say I'd miss it, knowing what would replace it. We'd had ten years of good times and bad. Mostly good. It had saved me in the winters, and it had destroyed me, too, when the gas would cut off and its contents would almost instantly freeze (which happened about every three years, on average). To say it was uninsulated was kind. 

Over time, as you can see, the plastic turned yellow and deteriorated, and I really noticed the effect of that decrease in light transmission on my plants in winter. 
I also noticed the Arctic breeze coming through the holes in the roof. I was tired of patching everything, the seams and now the roof, with Gorilla Tape. I was tired of everything about this structure. Good riddance, you bunch of poorly planned obsolescence. Thanks for the memories!

I had a large amount of work to do before the excavators got here and demolition commenced. There was some beautiful crocosmia "Lucifer" and a ton of nice Rudbeckia "Goldsturm" in the bed closest to the construction site. The retaining wall that supported that little bed was coming out, and I had to remove all those flowers. I potted them up and got them out of there the day before the excavators arrived. 

I put crocosmia all around the yard. This is the back deck bed, which I reclaimed this year from the giant kiwi vine that had eaten it for the past 16 years.  More on that later...that was a thing.

The side shade bed, emptied of its gold and scarlet treasure. The Groanhouse awaits its fate.

I don't like to waste anything, especially not living things. To my surprise, the Rudbeckia barely batted an eye when I dug it out and potted it--as long as I kept it in full shade and watered it every day. 

I loaded the 16 pots in the trailer and drove them around to live under the back deck for the rest of the summer, where they put on a beautiful show. I just had to remember to water them every day or two...I'm STILL watering those pots, two months later. 

Operation Relocate Rudbeckia in progress.

I took a deep breath. I was ready for the next morning, when the excavators would arrive. 
Lane was concerned that the weight of his mini-excavator might crack my sidewalk, so he executed this nifty leapfrog, taking the weight of the machine on the scoop and sort of jumping over the sidewalk!

Here comes the demolition crew: two young men. Lane, in red, and Stone, in gray, use their bare hands, arms, and legs to dismantle what took us a whole bunch of Saturdays to construct. I took a weird delight in seeing it taken apart. 

Witnessing Curtis watch the demolition squeezed my heart. He's nervous, licking his lips and shifting his gaze. He doesn't understand why I seem to be OK with my Groanhouse being destroyed. He thinks maybe he should do something about it, but he's taking his cues from me. Bless his rounded little head. He's got thoughts packed in there, he does.

Going, going...

Just a bunch of pieces. It left this world as it arrived. A deconstructed kit. 

Off it goes, carried by hand. Sheesh. Such an ignominious end.

My Greenhouse Story: Clearing the Hurdles

Friday, September 15, 2023



I started working on this Real Greenhouse idea back in December 2022. A Real Greenhouse is made of glass and aluminum (or polycarbonate, whichever you choose). It doesn’t need Gorilla Tape to hold it together. Everything is square and true and the weatherstripping stays put. There are louvers and a fan, and it’s not a lot harder to heat than a sunroom would be. This was my goal: to graduate from my wee hobby-grade kit-made plastic box (above) to a Real Greenhouse. After 12 years of dealing with small uninsulated plastic structures, I was more than ready. 

The dream was to hook it onto the downstairs bedroom in the tower part of the house so I could get there without clearing away snow or falling on ice. What a concept! I drool at the possibilities. Roll out of bed and go putter in the greenhouse in my slippers and PJ's on a snowy morning. Yeah. I've earned that luxury, and I was prepared to pay for it now.

 I looked around for greenhouse companies. I was seduced by BC Greenhouses’ Instagram feed, showing softly lit glass greenhouses glowing in snowstorms, but it didn’t make much sense to me to engage a company from British Columbia. Could I find anything farther away than British Columbia? Maybe Alaska?? So I came east and settled on Botanical Greenhouse Builders LLC, based in Rocky River, Ohio. I liked their quality, liked that they are Ohio-based, and I liked Jen Sutton, the person I interacted with. She was helpful, responsive, and empathetic to the problems I would encounter along the way. She gave great advice and was always clear in her communication.

 I sent her photos of my house and she sent back some rough drawings to help me envision a lean-to on my tower. And we were off and running…sort of. I still didn’t realize what lay ahead of me. In the least. So I’m writing these posts to remind myself that nothing good comes easily; that you have to save and spend and claw and scratch away at your big dreams to make them come true.

 In order to create a lean-to greenhouse, I needed to do several things. First, I needed to find someone to demolish the Groanhouse and remove its existing concrete pad, which was badly deteriorated. While I was at it, I’d have the concrete retaining wall to the left, and the old patio taken out. It was too narrow to house the greenhouse Jen and I had come up with: 10 ½’ wide x 16’ long. And it likely wasn't near thick enough, either, to support a lean-to's weight, and it didn't have monolithic footers.

 Then, I needed a new concrete pad poured, 6” thick with monolithic footers dug 2’ down. That meant large excavating machinery. 

 After that, I needed a low wall built from concrete block, for the glass to rest upon and be anchored to. I'd have it faced with nice looking stone, inside and out. Only when all those things were in place could I have the glass kit installed. 

The foundation would look something like this, but higher and with different stone facing.

 In short, I needed an excavator, a concrete person, a mason, a gutter guy, and a glass installer. Suddenly, I was thrust into the role of a general contractor, but the magnitude of the work in front of me, to line all this up in sequence, snuck up on me over time. Putting a greenhouse on the side of your house is tantamount to building an addition, plain and simple. It is not cheap, nor is it trivial. 

 In December 2022, I emailed a local landscaping company looking for help and never heard back. I didn’t know they simply shut down in winter and didn’t answer emails. Lots to learn. So I went through the Yellow Pages, more or less. I struck up a correspondence with a guy from a small glass company who said he could do both the concrete foundation and the glass installation. In one phone conversation, he even offered to be the general contractor for the job. Wow, I thought. This is AMAZING. Everything in one! I was hooked!

I called and left him a message on February 3. And then I left six more. On February 13 he finally picked up my call. Said his “phone was all messed up.” Oh. Right. I hate it when I’m running a business and my phone is all messed up. On February 14, the landscaping company emailed and said they were ready to help, having seen my email two months later. Well, I had someone, thanks. Or so I thought.

 I kept leaving messages for the glass guy/magic general contractor. He kept never answering his phone or his messages. So one fine day I drove 40 minutes to his storefront and introduced myself as the Julie Zickefoose whose calls and messages he never answered. He was NOT happy to see me. He looked like a fox caught in the headlights. Somewhere along the line, he’d decided he wanted nothing to do with this job, but he didn’t have the grace to tell me that. Thus cornered, though, he promised to come to my house on March 6, maybe even with his concrete guy in tow. And then, a big surprise! He never showed up. I was shocked! 

 After two months of steady pursuit, all I’d gotten out of the interchange was the slim satisfaction of facing him down in person about his constant ghosting and avoidance. If any of this sounds familiar, I’m sure you feel my pain. The pandemic, which had everyone renovating their living spaces because they couldn’t do much other than hang around them, made a lot of contractors fat and happy, and made some individuals extraordinarily lax about, um, answering their phones. Supply and demand--those laws are in full force. I kept feeling my dream slip through my hands, and I felt helpless to change any of it. Why couldn’t anyone return a dang call? It’s not like I’m crazy, or rude, or unwilling to pay them for their work…what was it? Was there a SARS-Unreliability-19 virus going around, and every tradesman for miles around had caught it? Nobody I talked to seemed to care that there was work to be had.

 I had good reason to be frustrated. I couldn’t order the glass until I had someone committed to pour the pad and build the foundation wall, and there was an 8-month manufacturing lag time AFTER the glass was ordered until it would be shipped and installed. So every week and month of my spring and summer the fibby contractor wasted pushed the greenhouse glass delivery later into the fall—and into the winter. 

 Finally I did what I should have done FIRST, and called my neighbor Kathy, who takes care of Curtis when I have to be away overnight, who waters my plants, who loved my Groanhouse and everything in it. And she recommended two people for the concrete. I called the first one on March 23 and left a message. He didn’t return my call until April 6. OK, he’s out. Been there, done that, not playing that phone tag any more.

After waiting for the first guy for a few days, I called the second person: AJ Johns Excavating,  a small local concrete and  construction firm. Owner AJ returned my call the same day. What was this new sensation? Someone was paying attention? Wanted the work? Oh, how I wished I’d started off with Johns Excavating! I’d really be somewhere by June! 

 He knew my road, and he knew where I lived, because he’d worked right down the road for two of my neighbors. Now we were shopping local! We made a date for him to come and look at the job on Saturday, April 1. And you know what? He kept the date! No big surprises nor April Fool’s from AJ Johns Excavating! By April 16, I had an estimate and a plan for the work from AJ.

 Together, we made a plan for July, when the yard had finally dried out, for the excavation of the footers. The greenhouse would be so heavy, and frost heaves such an issue with an attached lean-to, that we had to make sure it wouldn’t move around and tear itself off the house. Next, I had to have the gutter moved around to the south side of the house, to get it out of the way of the greenhouse glass. AJ recommended Eric Stemple, who did a fabulous job and was a delight to work with. Each little bit of progress made buoyed my spirits. After five months of screwing around, we were finally on a path. It felt marvelous!

                                      Extra points for loving on my sweet Curtis, Stemple Gutters! 
                                                 And for knowing just where to scritch.

I know y'all hate cliffhangers. Just know that I'm not hiding anything here...just doling it out in pieces. 
I am still waiting for the glass to be delivered, as of September 15. 

Time for a Change... of Greenhouses

Wednesday, September 6, 2023


Eleven years ago, my Rion "Prestige" greenhouse kit arrived in a bunch of big rattly boxes. Looking at these photos gives me PTSD. I would never, ever, ever attempt to build my own greenhouse from a kit again, now, or ever.  But that's just me. Maybe you're more kit-oriented. Maybe there are better kits than this. Lord, there have to be. Oh, what I didn't know in this joyful moment...My greenhouse kit is here, yaaay!

In the photo you can see me standing in the humble circular imprint of my first greenhouse, which was called the Garden Pod. I loved that thing. It was tiny, but well-insulated and strong,  and I enjoyed it hugely from 2010-2012. I can't get over just how small it was. I could span it with my arms outstretched!

I used that little phone booth as well as anyone could. Man, did I cram the plants into it! It was my tiny she-shed before anyone came up with the terms.

I might still have it today, but a derecho (straight line windstorm) hit July 4 2012, and a mulberry tree fell on it and went boom. Got back from a hard week at Hog Island, Maine, to utter devastation. Luckily, there were no plants in it; it was just a winter retreat for us all. I knew I needed a greenhouse before winter came. Having experienced the mood lift, I knew I wouldn't make it through another Mid Ohio Valley winter without a greenhouse of some description.

Enter the Rion "Prestige" plastic greenhouse.  It was what I could afford at the time. You can see that fall is well in progress here!

Here I am studying the instructions, which had no words. Yep. No words at all. Just pictures, and arrows, and lines, and letters, and numbers. Saves on translating, I guess. The kit was from Israel.

It took Bill and me about six weeks to put it together, though the friendly lady on the phone said we could do it on "a good Saturday." Mmm-hmm. That would be SOME Saturday, with a crew of 12 rocket scientists.

I know I saw Part A-16 in here SOMEWHERE. Lookit th' Bacon settin' in the corner below...

Sheesh, the Prestige wasn't all that much bigger than the Pod, as I look at the Pod's imprint on the slab! 
I got four corners and a little roof height out of it. 

In the end,  I got ten years of use out of the Rion Prestige. Which, considering the quality of the materials and the janky kit construction, is astonishing. By the fourth winter, I was taping the plastic panels in place with clear Gorilla Tape. Each fall I'd rip it off, wash the plastic panels as best I could, and put fresh tape on. God, what an awful job that was, putting a ladder up on the creaking, groaning side of the Groanhouse, trying not to fall through the roof, but if I didn't do that, the panels would blow out. It happened once in a windstorm on a frigid January evening. All the heat just flew out of there, leaving my plants shivering and dying. I had to empty it immediately and fix the panel the next morning. Thank God I was home at the time. Talk about scrambling...
Ever buy 12 rolls of clear Gorilla Tape? Don't. 

What's wrong with this picture? EVERYTHING. Snow on the ground and a pane out of the Groanhouse. January, 2014. I've hauled everything but the rosemary Christmas tree out of there.

I could go on about the periodic greenhouse freezes, but y'all have been there with me. Still, in the wash, joy prevailed, and I knew I had to have a Real Greenhouse. The Rion Prestige helped get me through what I hope will be looked back on as the hardest decade of my life. And so for that, I most humbly and grumpily thank the Groanhouse.

By late winter 2023, I knew the panels wouldn't make it through another season. I could see the sky through pencil-sized holes in several of them. The frame sagged and all the rubber weatherstrip had worked its way out and couldn't be forced back in. I could hardly keep it warm with two gas heaters when the temperature dropped to the 20's, so I was in the habit of emptying the damn thing every time the mercury dropped below 20. Bringing all those plants into the house was SuCh a DrAg. 

After a decade of THAT, I'm more than ready for a real greenhouse!
To be continued...
don't y'all love a cliffhanger?


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