Getting Roots in the Ground Again

2016/17 been a remarkably mild winter in this corner of Pennsylvania, and although February usually brings us some of our harshest cold and winter storms, this year it’s going out with a whimper.  For a few days I won’t complain but beyond that I can’t promise anything.  March has a history of big snow-dumps and hopefully if they do come they’re more picturesque than they are damaging, and hopefully this quirk of a winter is also not some dark prequel to an even worse global warming future.

Without a solid slate-cleaning this winter I’m a little lost heading into the 2017 gardening season.  It all still seems so ‘last year’ so I suppose I’ll use that as my excuse for not putting out the usual bored with the snow, don’t want to face the cold, winter time flashback posts, but let me at least try and get this one post out before I’m lost outside again searching for spring sprouts.  It goes back to 2002 when the ignorance of youth thought it would be a good idea to buy a house, lose a job, and get engaged all in the same two months.

dupont house

Our diamond in the rough.

Before I get too distracted with the story I want to point out that a normal first impression of our little valley usually dates it at around 20 years behind the rest of the country.  It’s a region who’s boom time began at the tail end of the 1700’s with the discovery of vast deposits of anthracite coal; the cleanest, hardest, and highest carbon coal out there, and the fuel which powered the economic and manufacturing development of this entire region.  For about 100 years we were riding high but it was a one horse show, and by the 1950’s the horse was definitely showing its age.  Deep mining had shifted to strip mining and the whole region went into a kind of long term hibernation of fleeing youth and aging residents.  Our house is an example of the ‘build it quick for housing’ phase and was probably built around 1910 as cheap two family housing for miners.  After decades of rough living it was probably worth our $24,000 purchase price.

garden renovation

100 years of history and the yard didn’t even have a peony or daffodil.  Gardening was confined to an overgrown privet hedge which looms to the right and a single mass of lilacs growing alongside a decaying shed.

I optimistically brought all the potted plants over from my former apartment balcony and then later watched them freeze as first the plumbing and then heat and finally electricity were pulled out and replaced.  In case it’s not obvious from the photos or purchase price the house was in horrible condition, so much so that when the realtor’s odd girlfriend took her small dog into the house and allowed it to pee on the kitchen doorjamb it barely raised an eyebrow.  I guess we were too distracted by the rotted floor boards, cobbled home repairs, and ‘evidence’ of vermin infestation.

new garden

That fall I planted daffodils, and in between gutting the house and piecing together scraps for a rabbit hutch, put in the first patch for gardening and trimmed back the near side of the privet. oh yeah, and actually transplanted grass so that I had at least one nice strip of lawn to walk on.

As I’m very fond of saying, ignorance is bliss, and for several months the economic realities of the newly unemployed demanded that I just “polish and put a shine on shit” and hopefully have a resale value once the journey was done, but a former girlfriend now fiancée had different ideas.

new garden

I have no idea why I had to have a waterlily even when I didn’t have a running toilet, but there it is.  Until the next dumpster arrives, what better use is there for a 1960’s avocado green bath tub? 

After several months of basement and utility renovations the friend who’s a contractor is traded in for the actual deal.  We’re into new territory now and although I can’t pay my labor in cases of beer anymore there is progress.  Unfortunately real contractors can’t be bothered with sensibly small attic dormers, they prefer “it’s cheaper to rip it down and build solid walls” and so we did.

dupont house

About a year later.  Might as well add a second floor while you’re at it. 

So here we were taking a two family home (which likely housed close to a dozen people at one time), tripling it in size, and making it just large enough for the two of us.

dupont house

Looks quaint and country, but keep in mind that a freight rail line runs just behind the trees, and only a few years ago a garbage truck collapsed into the road when an old mine shaft gave way.

Still unemployed, and now enrolled in school (again) the ballooning “don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of the kids”, pricetag finally scared me off the very addictive drug of contractor help.  With windows in and siding set to go on we cut the cord, buttoned up the exterior and moved into the basement… and found out what it is to live on love 🙂

dupont house

Building from the bottom up.  What were we thinking!?  In hindsight it’s hard to believe all of this was the product of me in the basement with a few sheets of graph paper and a lot of ‘yeah, I think I want another door here and window there… and oh, probably another bathroom’. 

Obviously there wasn’t all that much free time for gardening, but you know how it goes with all work and no play…

new garden

Of course there’s not much to the garden in October, but the privet has bounced back from its trim back and another bed is in.  Not really a garden design, but these beds take care of the pathetic grass which it replaced.  Please note the ever popular burn pit where most of the old house’s lumber was illegally burned.

Once we moved into the house the next three years are kind of foggy.  A full kitchen came first, a completed first floor, a new job, a master bedroom, a new baby, a completed second floor… finally an attic loft.  Slowly the garden inched along as well.

garden renovation

Behind the garage became a new garden spot where iris divisions were welcomed.  You can’t beat the generosity of other gardeners for filling in bare patches.

To know me is to know I have a slight leaning towards the tropical flair.  I love how you can get a massive show in just a few short weeks.

garden renovation

The usual leftovers and scraps which are my constant struggle.  Someday I’ll get them under control… or move to a new house 😉

The fun of a new garden is you have room for nearly everything and don’t yet have the baggage of too many beds gone to weeds, invasive plants, or “shouldn’t have put that there” issues.

tropical garden

I am a bit of a creature of habit.  Ten years later and I’m still growing all of these tropical and tropical looking goodies. -and I still like too much red

Another big plus for this house was that pretty much everything we did was a blessing -considering the property’s history of troublesome kids, giant rats, and overflowing trash piles.  Construction debris, dirt piles, unfinished projects, were all overlooked in this neighborhood where it’s not unusual for people to live and die in the house they were born in.

garden renovation

The front garden never really had time to come together.  I would have loved a small picket fence or something.

We were on a different track though.  Memories were built, lessons learned, and dreams ignited but when it came down to it this wasn’t more than a stepping stone.  Five years into it (just as the last big projects were finished) we decided to buy the house of my wife’s grandparents.  It was an unexpected decision based mostly on emotion, but in the long run we knew this would be short term.

garden renovation

A very helpful addition to the garden.  From the start he was practically an expert in finding worms and digging up new transplants.

So that spring I focused on grassing over a few beds, moving a ton of plants to the new house, and getting the house set to go on the market.

garden renovation

The new view out the back door.  I wish I had better pictures of the seating area carved out of the back slope, but as usual I was distracted by lounging out on the deck.

So that was what brought us to the new house.  In what has become our normal mode of operation for life changing events, that spring we were hit with a tsunami of the house selling in three days, a baby arriving a month early, a job lost, a car totaled, all made even more fun when you decide a few changes to the “new” house might be necessary… but we survived and it really puts the panic of a late frost or snapped iris stalk in perspective.

Don’t worry, we shall return to our normal garden updates next post.  I’ve just taken a look outside and the snowdrops are coming and the snow is melting and as soon as 2017 is off and running I won’t give a darn about years gone by until winter rolls around again.  Hopefully the weather is looking up for you as well!

31 comments on “Getting Roots in the Ground Again

  1. Eliza Waters says:

    I love rags to riches stories! That was one helluva makeover. 😉

  2. Thank you, I really enjoyed that. For just five years you got a lot done!

    • bittster says:

      That’s one thing I learned. For as much as you get done you always think it should be more, but then suddenly one day you discover you’ve really moved forward.

  3. rusty duck says:

    That is incredible, quite incredible. Makes what we’ve done look like a bit of weekend DIY. I’m not surprised it sold so quickly.

    • bittster says:

      Haha, nice of you to say, but putting a new roof on this one didn’t involve a couple hundred years of archeology and craftsmen who practice centuries old techniques!

  4. johnvic8 says:

    a grand history. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Cathy says:

    You put a lot of hard work into that house and garden – weren’t you sad to leave? I remember when we moved from our first house, which we lovingly restored, to our current house… but the greater gardening possibilities here were a major advantage. Nice story Frank!

    • bittster says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one! For a few months I was thrilled to have any excuse to go by the house or stop by to answer questions, but eventually it faded. I still do like to walk through the alley behind the house and take a peek in every now and then, it’s interesting to see what’s holding up.

  6. Christina says:

    I’m seriously impressed, well done. I suppose you did a great deal on the house too so all the work was worth it. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  7. Linda B. says:

    Loved this post. It was so nice to see all that history and the before and after pictures. You really went gung-ho. Makes a difference if you can do some of this yourself. My paternal grandfather went to work in the PA coal mines as a breaker boy at age 10. My sister lives in Erie and her daughter is a reporter on urban issues at the Pitt Gazette so I am always interested in PA stories. In 2007/08 when we had a 100 inches of snow, my husband had hernia surgery in early Dec. just before the first big storm and neighbors cleared our driveway every morning so I could get to my 6 am job. At the same time as dreadful weather began, work began on upgrading our 2 bathrooms and our entire electrical system adding lighting around the house and more outlets etc. I discovered I was going to lose my job the week the work on the house ended and we were handed the remainder of a very big bill. Looking back it all seems a long time ago and mostly a good story that we lived through. The big diff is no kids to be concerned about. Looking forward to your next house history.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Linda, I didn’t realize you had that PA connection! My son is 11 and I just can’t imagine him already out to work in somewhere as dangerous as a breaker. The good old days had their down side as well.
      There’s a lot of good to say about some of these old neighborhoods. I would always get a report if an unknown car came through at a suspiciously slow speed, and sometimes the neighbors would know more about what was going on with the house construction than I did! But it does make for good stories, and I try to remind myself of this whenever some seemingly major tragedy strikes.

  8. Julie says:

    Great post and lovely to read of your journey and memories. Renovating is stressful without job, car and of course children to factor in. Quite right to put into perspective a snapped stem, we focus on such silly small thing sometimes.

    • bittster says:

      I sometimes think the size of the project doesn’t matter as far as stress goes. We’ve had bigger arguments over a towel rack than we’ve had over adding a new bedroom!

  9. Ian Lumsden says:

    I have not enjoyed a blog entry so much since .. well, I can’t. My first ever job in a new house was to knock down a chimney and wall. Ignorance is bliss and I would not attempt it today. We live in an area of northern England where coal was king until there was a forced abdication. It left areas of the country without jobs and cheap housing. Gradually the slag heaps have been greened up, the well paid mining jobs replaced by usually lowly paid jobs with a few surprising successes. I guess buying your grandparents’ old house was a move upwards. Nostalgia takes no account of that and I note you brought your old plants to your new house. A good move. Not sure about the giant rats.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Ian! Unfortunately it’s a one and done kind of post, I can’t imagine going through all of this again! Like you mention, older and wiser often prevents one from jumping into these projects as eagerly and blindly as you might have in the past… which may not be the worst thing.
      I believe this area is following right along behind the history of northern England, we also struggle with the lower paid jobs which have come in to replace the lost higher paying jobs, but ours were based in the manufacturing jobs which came alongside the lure of cheap energy. I just hope our slag heaps green up as well some day, there are still so many dotting the landscape.
      If anything the new house has a much larger yard and a nice combination of fewer stairs/more square footage. Unfortunately it also came with plenty of remodeling opportunities… and we are still slowly working through that 😉

  10. Annette says:

    This is a great story, Frank, and as usually so well told. You’ve such a talent at writing, always a joy to come here and yes, you make me laugh, crazy gardener :D. You’ve done a great job on the house, the new owners must be thrilled, no wonder it sold so quickly. We’ve done up several places – it’s always hard work but also fun, pushing you to the limit at times but rewarding and when the time comes to say good bye, it’s often hard but it helps if you move on to something better…which is where you are now, I hope.

    • bittster says:

      Thank you Annette, so nice of you to say!
      I’ve always loved your outdoor building and remodeling stories and can only imagine the magic you’ve done indoors as well. The two of you do a beautiful job and the results are inspiring in both their quality and uniqueness. -I love Pompeii!

  11. hoehoegrow says:

    Gosh what a lot of hard work! I am tired out just from reading about it all!

  12. I love this post! How cool to get to know more about you. 🙂

  13. Chloris says:

    What a fascinating story and what a project! Wow, the energy involved in such a makeover, but you made a lovely house and garden.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Cloris. Even I wonder where all that energy came from… and then now disappeared to!
      Didn’t you leave an extensive garden behind? Did you just close the gate and leave or have you been back? I did go back but of course was somewhat disappointed.

  14. What a great story! I’m glad I was scrolling through to catch up on your posts and found it!

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