Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Plant Labels - My New Approach

Over the years I've spent a small fortune on labels for the plants in our garden, mostly the white plastic kind from the home center. For various reasons few survive, leaving me to wonder if that really is a bare space, or if it's the home of a dormant plant that should be left in peace. Many of the labels that stay in place have become so brittle they shatter into tiny pieces when I try to pull one out and read it. The writing on others has faded to the point of being illegible, or has completely disappeared, leaving no clue as to the identity of the plant they mark. Some labels just get up and walk away. It's all very frustrating - and expensive, and I've been looking for a better way to mark the plants.

A partial answer to my label problem came as I was sifting through back issues of Fine Gardening magazine and discovered that plant gurus Dan Hinkley and Tony Avent use extra fine black DecoColor paint pens by Uchida, which are weatherfast and can be used on glass, wood, clay, stone, porcelain, mirrors, metal and paper. That was good enough for me, so I ordered a couple.

The other half of the solution is cutting up 1 inch venetian blinds for labels, instead of buying the commercial ones. Each slat of a two foot blind gave me four labels. I wanted to recycle a metal blind for durability, but I don't have any, so I settled for buying the smallest, cheapest vinyl blind I could find for about $4. I'll bet the vinyl labels don't last very long, but they're a fraction of the price of commercial labels, and it's a chance to test the DecoColor pens to see if the ink really is weatherproof around here. I think metal blinds will be the long term answer, and I'm sure to run across a superfluous one in a house that needs to be staged....:)

In addition to the species and cultivar, the size of labels and the fine tip pen allow me to include more information about the plant, such as the color, height, and date planted. OK, I admit that I'm a plant geek. I just put the new labels to work when I planted some astilbe, and as my dormant perennials emerge, I'm going to mark as many as possible so they're less likely to be dug up or stepped on (by Roger, of course - I'm innocent...).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Wednesday Evenings in March and April

This is page 12 of the Continuing Education catalog from Isothermal Community College (Polk Campus).  As you can see, my Wednesday evenings are going to be busy for a few weeks this Spring.

Beginning March 14th, REALTOR Mary Stephens and I will be repeating, "How to Be A Smart Homeseller - In Any Market", our popular course on smart selling practices, with special guests, Tryon-Polk County Board of REALTORs President, Kathy Toomey and Dale Hansen of Advantage Inspection. If you're planning to sell, or if your house is already on the market, learn how to apply smart selling principles and take charge of the selling process.

On April 4th I'm introducing a new course on how to take some of the angst out of choosing paint colors, with help from paint expert, Tom Williamson of Williamson's Paint Center in Landrum. In  "Paint Color Confidence", you'll learn basic color concepts and practical ways to choose attractive colors for the inside and outside of your house. If that yellow paint you thought would look wonderful turned out to look less than, find out why and how you can avoid the problem next time.

Thanks to the generosity of Isothermal, both courses are Special Events, meaning that they're free and open to the public as a service to the community.

To register, call Isothermal at 828-894-3092. If you have questions about the courses, please call me at 828-692-4355.

Here's a link to the catalog:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cosmetic Solutions for Low Ceilings

If you want to make a low ceiling look and feel taller, which in turn can make a small room look larger, there are several simple cosmetic measures you can take, and they cost little or nothing.

In this room you see decisions that lowered the ceiling. Read about the solutions, then see how many issues you can identify. The answers are at the bottom.**

Solutions with Paint
Improper Accenting Lowers the Ceiling
  • Don't accent the crown molding or the baseboards. Paint them in the wall color, using a satin enamel for durability, or to add a subtle difference in texture.
  • Use the wall color on the ceiling; or
  • Use a much lighter version of the wall color on the ceiling.  Many designers will spec a quarter or half formula of the color; however, I often prefer to look at a paint strip to get an idea of what several lighter versions will look like, before making a choice. Always make a large sample on foam core and tape it to the ceiling to see how it works. Color will change, depending on the orientation in which it's viewed. Never choose a ceiling color holding the sample board vertically!
  • Use a light color on the ceiling that's in low contrast with the wall color. Avoid stark white which will  make the room feel cold.
  • If the room has a chair rail, paint it the wall color to avoid cutting the wall in half.

Window Treatments

  • Hang window treatments at the top of the wall, whenever possible, never at the top of the window
As you see in this sketch, the difference is dramatic. Notice how much larger the right window looks, and how much more light can enter the room.


Decisions that Lowered the Ceiling:

  • The ceiling is darker than the upper section of the wall. 
  • Skimpy crown molding and baseboards have been painted in a high contrast accent color.
  • Chair rail in a high contrast accent color is cutting the room in half.

If  Roger had been asked to paint this room, I would have done a (free) color consultation and suggested:

Option #1 - A Single Wall Color
  • Use a single, warmer wall color to complement the wood floor, and 
  • Paint the skimpy crown, chair rail and baseboard in the wall color. 
  • Choose a lower contrast trim color that complements the new wall color.

Option #2 - Two Wall Colors
  • Use different colors on the upper and lower walls, but choose ones with a similar Light Reflectance Value (LRV) for low contrast.
  • Paint the chair rail (and possibly the ceiling, depending on how light the colors) in the upper wall color.
  • Paint the wall register and baseboards in the lower wall color.
  • Use a lighter color on the ceiling.
  • Choose a lower contrast trim color that complemented the new wall color(s).
If your house has low ceilings and you'd like some expert help, call me at 828-692-4355 to schedule a paint color consultation. If we do the painting, my guidance is a free part of our services. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Onion Fever: Ornamental, That Is...

Once I discovered the ornamental onion (Allium) family, I was hooked. Over the years I've grown several cultivars, and would be only too happy to grow more now, if I had the space, sun and budget to support my habit, and if I didn't have so many rodentia who would eat the bulbs in a heartbeat.

I love Allium in the garden and I love them in dried flower arrangements. I'm using some right this minute that I planted four years ago, harvested after they dried on the stalk, then sprayed with a copper metallic paint. They last indefinitely.

Allium Schubertii

One of my favorites is the delicate Allium schubertii, a heirloom variety that dates to 1896. The head is quite large and makes a dramatic statement, something like a Fourth of July sparkler.

Allium Sphaerocephalum

The small dark purple drumstick-shaped Allium sphaerocephalum is one that's supposed to naturalize, but it hasn't for me. I love it anyway.

Allium Christophii

Then there's Allium Christophii, commonly called Stars of Persia. Each star has a  bright green "eye".

Allium Hair

For those who love quirky, there are several unusual Allium, like "Hair"...

Allium come in white, rose, yellow, purple, blue, etc. Some like 'Globemaster' can reach up to four feet in height, and make a dramatic architectural statement.
Allium Globemaster

Costco sold Allium bulbs last fall, and when I saw them, I succumbed. Ever the optimist, I allowed hope to overcome experience and indulged in a couple of bags to see how they'd do, now that Roger has removed a few nasty trees and we have a bit more sun. Allium bloom in May and June, and the foliage is already starting to appear in a few places. Fingers crossed that if the bulbs have survived the rodentia, rabbits won't decide that the onion flavor makes them a perfect second course, after the mondo grass they've chewed to stumps.

If you'd like to see a variety of Allium cultivars, visit the VanEngelen, Inc. website. Van Engelen Catalog - Allium Section. You'll notice that they're sold out of most kinds, so if you see something you like, order early when the Fall catalog is released. Costco may have them again later this year, but you won't have a wide selection, nor will you be offered the ususual ones.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Right Color in the Right Place - Interior Strategies

The Accent Color Problem

Many people use an accent color on everything that's not a wall, whether or not it deserves the attention. The result is that the eye goes to the wrong places, often focusing on unattractive details instead of seeing the room as a harmonious whole. Improper accenting also can be detrimental to the architecture when it detracts from the intended focal point in a room, makes the room look smaller or makes the sceiling look lower.
Poor Paint Color Accenting
In this picture you see what usually happens. It's the "before" picture in a house where I was asked to do a staging consultation to advise how to get it ready to go on the market.

The ceilings are eight feet high and they'd originally been painted stark white in an attempt to make them seem taller so that the rooms would look more spacious. Unfortunately, that particular white didn't work well with the taupe walls because of both the color and the high contrast. It also made the rooms look cold and uninviting.

In addition to the color issues, improper accenting put the emphasis on the wrong things, like the skimpy stair railing and baseboards, the vents and switch plates, as well as several doors. Note, too, how the white baseboards cut off part of the wall, making it seem shorter and lowering the ceiling.

There were other color placement problems in this house that this picture doesn't show:
  • When I opened the front door, I faced the white door to a badly placed coat closet directly opposite in the very small foyer. That glaring white door was a shock and an unintentional barrier, not a welcome, so I suggested it be painted in the wall color so that a visitor's eye would travel to the living room on the right, instead of stopping abruptly at the closet.
  • The long wall to the right of the stairs in the picture has three doors that also were painted white, turning them into still more undesirable attention-grabbers. I recommended that two of the doors (one to a storage closet and one to the utility room) be painted in the wall color to make them look like part of the wall, so the room would look less "chopped up". The door to the powder room was left white.
To create a warmer, more elegant (and photogenic) interior, I also suggested that
  • the ceiling be painted a near white version of the wall color, instead of stark white, to add warmth and coordinate better with the walls.
  • the baseboards, vent, railing cap, door bell chime and switches be repainted with the wall color. Painting the baseboards in the taupe instantly raised the ceiling.
  • the narrow white stair railing and faux gold brackets be painted black to look like wrought iron, and make them appear more substantial.
  • a small wrought iron chandelier be moved to replace the flush mounted, builder grade light you see, and two small, inexpensive coordinating lights be used in the stairwell.
When I discussed these ideas with the owners, it was as if a light bulb went on and they could see the room for the first time. They agreed with the recommendations, gave us an enthusiastic go-ahead and Roger got to work. The house was to be listed the minute he was finished, but it looked so good in progress, a buyer snapped it up and immediately started moving in. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to use your imagination about the finished product, because the house quickly filled with their belongings and I wasn't able to take "after" pictures.

This small project illustrates the power of color selection and placement to solve design problems and change an ordinary result into one that transforms (and sells).

Have A Plan for Accenting
When you're planning a painting project, analyze the good and bad features of every room, and develop a plan. Make certain that everything you choose to accent truly deserves the spotlight, and use this list to help identify things you might want to camouflage.
  • Vents
  • Switch plates, unless you have special ones
    Vent and Hallway Door Painted in the Wall Color
  • Plug plates
  • Crown molding three inches wide, or less
  • Crown molding in rooms with low ceilings
  • Baseboards three inches wide, or less
  • Baseboards made of a plain board
  • Baseboards made of quarter round trim
  • Baseboards in rooms with low ceilings
  • Closet doors in small hallways.

Our Free Color and Detailing Consultation
When you hire us to do your painting, we include a color and detailing consultation at no charge. This unique service, along with Roger's exceptional workmanship and the use of premium quality materials, transformed the house in this story. We can do the same for your house.

If you have an interior or exterior painting project in mind, call me to talk about it and schedule an estimate.  828-692-4355

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Lady of Shalott and Me

When I look up from my computer monitor, I see a poster of this fabulous painting of the Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt. It's one of my favorite things.

The Story 
The painting was inspired by the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written in 1857. It tells the sad story of a lady imprisoned in a tower under a curse. We don't know exactly who she is, or how she came to be in this terrible predicament, but we sense she's done something very wrong.

From the poem we learn that the Lady is under a spell, forced to weave into a tapestry the life of the world outside her window, as reflected in her mirror. The yarn is going everywhere, as unruly and wild as her hair. The Lady is a (fiber) artist who can never be part of the world, never even look directly out the tower windows, or she will die. Who knows how long the weaving went on, but one day Sir Lancelot came riding by (you can see him in the painting), and you can guess what happened. The Lady was so overcome that she broke the spell and defied the curse by looking directly at him. Then the mirror cracked, the curse came upon her and she died. Somehow, the poem doesn't say, she wound up in a boat floating down to Camelot where Lancelot sees her, says she has a lovely face and says a prayer. Not a happy ending, but certainly in keeping with the Victorian conscience and its harsh judgments of women.

Interpreting the Painting
When you look at the painting, you can almost feel the tension. There's the struggle between life (sort of) and death, between an artificial world and the real world, between the Lady's artistic detachment as she works on the tapestry, and her longing for emotional involvement. There's quite a lot going on in this picture, and the more you examine it, the more interesting it becomes. Some say it's an allegory of a fallen woman who was lead astray and met a fate worse than death - to see the world, but not be part of it. Others say she represents the artist, or the place of women in society. What do I think? I think the painting is beautiful. I love its complexity and colors, and all its associations with people, stories and ideas. I don't need to pick any particular interpretation.

Other Versions of the Painting
Moxon Tennyson - 1857 
There are some things I know about Hunt's Lady, and other things that I want to sort out someday. He drew this sketch of her for the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems that was published in 1857. He also may have painted more detailed versions in oil over the ensuing 50 years, with different symbolism in the background. The best known version is the one above with Greek symbolic figures. It was completed in 1905 when Hunt was 83, and so rickety that he needed help from Edward Robert Hughes. Somewhere there may be a Lady with medieval figures instead of Greeks, or Hunt may have painted over them. Apparently he worked on this painting off and on for decades. There's a tremendous difference between this first, much simpler Lady and the richly detailed final one.

Back to the Poem
Although Tennyson's poem isn't considered to be a literary masterpiece, it's been a powerful source of inspiration to painters and singers ever since it was published. The Lady has been painted many, many times, including three beautiful versions by John William Waterhouse, but Hunt's Lady is by far my favorite. In fact I love it so much, that about fifteen years ago I made a special trip to Hartford, CT where it hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum, of all places, because it had such a hold on my imagination that I had to see it in person. I wasn't disappointed. The painting is HUGE - 74 x 57 inches, and just magnificent. I bought the poster at the gift shop and later had it framed.

The poem is a long one, but well worth reading, or even more fun, listening to. The celestial Loreena McKennitt set it to music several years ago, and Roger and I have had the good fortune to see and hear her perform it in concert - twice. Just remembering those nights gives me chills.  Here she is to sing it for you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Winter Citrus Adventures

Winter isn't my favorite season, but one of the things I do appreciate is the availability of citrus fruits that either I don't see at other times, or that are priced so high in the rare places that carry them, that I don't buy them. My list of readily available favorites includes Nagami kumquats, which I added to my repertoire fairly recently, Cara Cara oranges, Meyer lemons (which I used to grow and really miss), Moro blood oranges, Minneola tangelos, Satsuma mandarins and Algerian clementines. Although these varieties aren't new, they're still a treat and I enjoy dreaming up ways to use them. I zest and juice some while they're plentiful, then freeze them in small batches to await my next brain storm.

The taste of some varieties isn't the citrus experience most of us are used to. I was chatting about this by email with my friend Bonnie in San Francisco, and she said while she, "loves the Moro's flesh, my one reservation is that the taste is not consistent. I peel each wondering if it will have that taste I can best describe as dusty and not-at-all citrus-like. It's 'that borderline taste'. I have tried to find connections among the skin color, the flesh color and the varying taste, but am not, so far, successful."  I know what she's talking about, but it doesn't diminish my enjoyment of dramatic and beautiful Moro's. As for my latest taste test, I tried a Chandler pummelo the other day and didn't appreciate having to excavate through a deep, deep layer of pith to get to the small amount of fruit that wasn't tasty enough to be worth the effort. Maybe it was a bad example, but I'm going to look for the new 'Valentine' hybrid next time.

I wanted to learn more about advances in citrus, and after some rooting around, I found this link to a very helpful report from the University of California at Davis about the standard kinds of citrus vs. the new varieties to locate and try.
Buddah's Hand

Citrus: Tried and True or Something New? 

I'm looking forward to more adventures in citrus, so if you see anything exciting in your travels, please tell me about it. High on my wish list is the citron, "Buddah's Hand". It's so ugly it's beautiful and you can't eat it, but it's supposed to have a wonderful fragrance. I'd love to have one on the kitchen counter.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Right Color in the Right Place - Exterior

My approach to working with paint colors is simple:

Where you put color is just as important as finding colors that work.

An Easy Fix With Color
Far too many exterior painting projects turn out to be unattractive and disappointing, sometimes because the colors are unsuitable or lack harmony, and sometimes because the wrong things were accented.

Misguided accenting
  • Creates undesirable focal points.
  • Distorts proportion and scale
  • Results in an overall impression of bits and pieces, instead of a unified whole.
The house in this picture illustrates what I mean. If we'd done the painting, the owners would have received a free color and design consultation. I would have recommended several color and cosmetic fixes, including the following:
  • Paint the large garage door in the wall color instead of white so that it doesn't detract from the entryway and make the house look lopsided.
  • Paint the Palladian window above the front door in the wall color. The window may be an attractive detail when viewed from the inside, but from the exterior its shape and multiple panes conflict with the front door below it, which also has multiple panes. Painting the window in the wall color would reduce the busy look and negative impact. 
  • Paint the downspouts and banding boards in the wall color to simplify the look of the facade and eliminate the "bits and pieces" problem, which is more noticeable in person than in the picture. 
  • Paint the front door, including the grid, in a single accent color to create a strong focal point that adds pizzazz and provides a warm welcome to visitors.
Once the painting was done, I would have suggested other cosmetic fixes, like adding a trellis to fill the large, awkward space above the garage, using one style of light instead of four and replacing the three lights over the garage with two slightly larger lights. The landscaping also needs a little help, including new foundation plants of varying heights, shapes and textures, and a vine, perhaps a clematis, to grow across the new trellis. Don't forget to factor in the color(s) of flowering plants when choosing exterior paint colors!

Better color placement alone would have made a significant difference in the curb appeal of this house and wouldn't have cost one cent more than the misguided color decisions you see. The other fixes could be done as time and the budget permitted.

What You Should Accent
I believe that you should accent only those things that truly deserve the attention, and that you should consider scale and proportion when you decide what to do. Don't automatically accent something because it's there. Garage doors like the ones in this picture are a prime example of a detail that's usually accented, when they should be painted with the wall color instead. Think about it. Why would you want to draw the eye to where your cars live, instead of making your front door the focal point?

Deciding what to hide is simple. Camouflage everything that's strictly utilitarian or that doesn't contribute to a simple, harmonious impression. Paint it the color of the surface on which it sits, or that it adjoins. Here are some examples:

Exterior Details to Hide, When Possible
  • Construction banding boards (They are there as joinery, not as decoration!)
  • Garage doors, if they can be painted. Read your door warranty.
  • Utility boxes, wires and pipes
  • Downspouts
  • Gutters, if they can be painted, and the colors don't work with the roof or the paint colors
  • Deck undercarriages and support posts, in some situations
  • Roof jacks and vents
  • Foundations
  • Small vents in gables
  • Small scale trim pieces used to create outlines
I can't help it! I have to get up on my soapbox now to rail against the unfortunate common practice of accenting banding boards. Seldom, if ever, is it desirable to create the impression that a building is an assemblage of segments, rather than a unified whole. Accenting banding boards creates visual confusion and detracts from the architecture. Drive around and look at examples in your neighborhood, then picture how much better those houses would look if those boards blended with the wall.

How in the world do these mistakes keep happening? I'll tell you. Unfortunately, most painting contractors, builders and homeowners aren't trained in color and design, so they go on automatic pilot and accent everything that's not a wall, or don't even think to hide those distracting pre-finished items, when it's possible.

I'm very proud to say that Roger and I are different. We combine knowledge and skill based on formal training and over twenty-five years experience as professional painting contractors, with color expertise and a concern for aesthetics.

If you're planning an exterior painting project, remember the house in this example and the power of color placement to change an ordinary outcome into one that adds beauty and value. 

Call me at 828-692-4355 to talk about what you'd like to accomplish, and to schedule an estimate. If we do the work for you, a color and design consultation is a free part of our service, a value-added approach you'll really appreciate when you see the results.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sandy's Favorite Italian Tomato Soup

Yesterday when I was leaving the grocery store I got to talking with the woman parked next to me, and before I knew it the conversation had worked its way around to a recipe I'd invented for Italian tomato soup. (This soup has become so essential to my happiness that I get uneasy if there's none in the freezer, and I serve it to nearly everyone who shows up for lunch during the winter.) I started to tell her how I made the soup, but a parking lot isn't the best place to share a detailed recipe, so I gave her my card and promised to write it down for her if she'd send me her email address.

Today she wrote to me, and then I realized that if I was going to take the time to transfer something from my mind to the written word, I should share it with you, too.      


1. In a very large stock pot, saute the following together until translucent:

  • 1 cup Bella Sun Luci oil packed, sun dried tomatoes with Italian herbs (from Costco), drained and rinsed to remove excess oil
  • 2 medium or 1 large onion, medium dice
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2-3 carrots, medium dice
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 1 tsp Italian herbs, salt and pepper to taste

2. Add

  • 1 35 oz can Nina San Marzano tomatoes (also from Costco)
  • 1-2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled, seeded and chopped (I prepare them in advance and keep batches in the freezer)
  • Cover with chicken stock (about 3 boxes of 32oz Costco Organic Chicken Stock ) 

3. Cook over medium low heat about 30 minutes, or until all vegetables are completely cooked, then stir in 3-4 tbsp pesto, or to taste.

4. Cool off the heat for at least fifteen minutes.

5. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth.

6. Add more chicken stock to thin the soup to the consistency you like, and adjust the seasoning with more salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, pesto, etc.

I probably should call this my Costco Italian Tomato soup, but although the Costco products are delicious and well-priced, they're not essential. Equivalents will work just as well.

Carol, thank you for giving me the nudge to do this. I hope you in particular enjoy the soup. Please let me know what you think!