Stacking Functions Garden


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Pandemic gardening

Gardening this year, like everything else, is imbued with a feeling that nothing is the same, and might not be for a very long time. And yet. As I watch my yard come to life this spring, there are certain plants for which I feel so much gratitude. Well, honestly, I feel gratitude for all green things in the spring.

Blood root in full bloom

Bloodroot, one of my favorite wildflowers, is blooming in the Twin Cities area right now.

Here are some plants I was especially excited to see–some are weeds, and some are perennials I planted, but ALL are edible.

In times of uncertainty, growing your own food is taking control of something that you can take at least a measure of control over. I’ve been seeing lots of news articles about people suddenly taking an interest in gardening, and there’s never been a better time. There’s also never been a better time to search out locally-produced dairy and meat.

I also buy nearly all my meat directly from a farm family–Chris and Tamara Johnson of Johnson Family Pastures–and this has also been a source of comfort during this uncertain time. Getting to know the people who raise my food has always been important to me, but now it feels vital. Pasture-based meat is more expensive (and more nutritious) than conventional, but I use it more thoughtfully as a result.

Anyway, back to gardening, since that’s what I am here to write about.

One of the main principles of permaculture is to emphasize perennial edibles over annuals. This can be somewhat challenging in the north. And yet. When I look out on my yard today I see several things to eat–even though the snow only just melted–and having just a few things feels like a bit of added security. That feeling will get stronger when I have cherries, raspberries, and currants to pick.

Here are six edible perennials I’ve got growing right now. Each of these multipurpose plants stacks up several functions in the garden–from feeding my family and me to feeding pollinators.

Garlic mustard

Young garlic mustard plants. Later it gets much taller, with tiny white flowers.

Garlic mustard
One of my big goals is to try and make garlic mustard more popular. I walked along Minnehaha Creek last week and was really sad to see the extent to which it is taking over the natural area along the shore. If more people knew how delicious it is, perhaps they could over-harvest it like they do with ramps. 

Garlic mustard was brought over from Europe by early white settlers, and spread throughout the United States rapidly. It’s a green; you eat it like spinach, raw or lightly steamed. Its name comes from a slightly garlicky taste and aroma. Every year, I carefully remove every bit of garlic mustard from my yard, and yet every year more comes back. Someone nearby must have quite a bit that they allow to go to seed.

Please note: do NOT let garlic mustard go to seed. If you see it, pull it, whether you plan to eat it or not. This stuff is seriously invasive. Now is the very easiest time to find it, as it’s one of the only green things in natural areas.

stinging nettle pesto

Cutting up stinging nettle for steaming. Note the gloves–necessary only until nettles are cooked.

Stinging nettle
I’ve been allowing a little stinging nettle patch in my yard for several years now. I keep a very close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t expand too much, ruthlessly pulling any that appears beyond the bounds of where I’ve decided it can grow.

Why keep stinging nettle around? Two very important reasons. First, it’s a superfood. After a long winter of greens trucked in from California, in the early spring your body is practically begging for something local, fresh, and packed with anti-inflammatory goodness. My favorite two ways to use it are in an herbal tea, or lightly steamed and made into pesto–just use a standard pesto recipe and substitute steamed nettle leaves for the basil. Steaming it removes the sting.

The second reason I like to keep a little patch of nettles is that it’s the host plant for the Red Admiral butterfly–their caterpillars exclusively eat members of the nettle family. Red Admirals are not endangered like monarchs, but I can spare a few square feet of my yard to feed their babies.

sorrel

French sorrel in a bunny-proof protective basket.

French sorrel
Unlike my edible weeds, I’ve actually had to purchase and plant new French sorrels several times. Without a protective cage, rabbits will eat it to the ground over and over in the spring. I’ve also killed it by planting it in shade–it stays much bigger and healthier in a sunny spot. French sorrel can be used like spinach as well, and its flavor gets more pungent as the season goes. I think of it as a spring food; sorrel soup is a spring tradition around here but it’s also good in egg dishes.

Lovage is new to me so I only have baby pictures so far! I hear it gets quite large…

Lovage
Here’s a new-to-me plant this year. I read about lovage in permaculture books several years ago, but then became inspired to plant it after reading several of Monty Don’s books last winter. It’s a perennial that gets quite large and must be planted in a sunny spot. Its early spring leaves have a celery-like flavor; the best use for it truly is in soups. The flavor is not as good later in the season, but Monty Don recommends cutting it down severely in the early fall to encourage new tasty, leafy growth.

First chive harvest of 2020.

Chives
I first planted a small pot of chives more than 10 years ago, and now have several little clumps of them around the yard. They come back faithfully every year, surviving in all kinds of light conditions. They can spread quickly in a sunny spot, so I purposely keep them in partly-shaded areas. Chives are always my very first harvest of the spring–this year I picked my first on March 28.

Harvesting rhubarb on a VERY cold early May day in 2019.

Rhubarb
Who doesn’t love rhubarb? Rhubarb can be a little tricky to grow for two important reasons. First, it MUST have full sun (8-12 hours of direct sunlight per day) or it will die out after a year or two. I nearly killed mine by initially planting it in a spot that kept getting shadier each year. When I realized it was dying, I moved it into a new sunny spot and now, two years later, it’s thriving again. Secondly, it’s hard to resist picking every last beautiful rib of your rhubarb plant, especially in the early years when you’re so excited to finally have rhubarb. If you pick too much, you will kill your plant. My rule of thumb is to never pick more than half the plant at a time.

My tiny lettuce seedlings survived some very cold nights recently in the mini-hoophouse.

Cold season veggies
Halfway through writing this post, I got word that Mother Earth Gardens and other local garden centers are reopening again, after doing a limited website ordering/curbside pickup system for several weeks. I’m sure it will not be the delightful shopping experience we once knew and loved, but it’s necessary.

Please consider buying your plants from a local nursery, rather than a big box store. There are several good reasons to do this. First, big box stores treat their plants with neonicotinoids, which will injure and potentially kill any bee that tries to pollinate your flower. Secondly, these stores are primarily concerned with making a sale, not helping you be a better gardener. Also, does it even need to be said that small businesses need extra help right now? Choose integrity, and choose people who truly care about plants and pollinators–vote with your dollars on this issue.

I like to buy onion “starts” from Mother Earth Gardens. You tease them apart and plant them around 2″ apart from each other, then start thinning them when they reach delicious green onion size.

Garden season is really heating up along with the weather–as of right now in the Twin Cities it’s safe to plant out “cold season” vegetables. These are the ones that won’t be hurt by a light frost, like peas, lettuce, anything related to cabbage, greens, and many annual flowers. Perennial plants can also go in now. I sowed kale, collards, and poppy seeds yesterday, and I’ve got flats of herbs under grow lights in the basement. I’ve also got some pretty tiny lettuce seedlings under my mini-hoophouse.

Planting out kale, collard, and poppy seeds on April 18, 2020.

Time to get growing. Questions about gardening? Ask in the comments below or follow me on Instagram for more frequent updates.


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Garden Plan 2019

It’s January. It’s about zero degrees F. A snowstorm is due any minute. Time to get started on planning my garden for this year.

The main thing to note about this year’s plan: it does not include cucumbers or tomatoes. I’m giving my main home garden the year off from both; I’ll most likely try to grow them at Sabathani Community Garden. My home garden has built up various tomato and cucumber diseases over the past few years, and I need a year of starving both bacteria in hopes of getting rid of them for good.

Let’s take a look at the plan:

Sample garden layout

Starting on the far left, the little strip of land between my deck and chain link fence was a fine rhubarb area for several years, but unfortunately the grapevines that I am training on the arbor over the deck are now casting deep shade in that area for most of the summer—this is what I wanted! But it means the rhubarb had to go somewhere sunnier. I transplanted it last fall.

In its spot I will put a mix of early- and late-season pollinator support plants. My two favorites for a shady spot like this are bloodroot and zig zag goldenrod.

 

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Bloodroot, aka sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot blooms in the very early spring—usually in April when I’m feeling the most desperate for some sign of spring. It’s an ephemeral so it only blooms for a very short time, then the leaves get quite large and look just like an umbrella for a fairy to sit under. I can’t get enough of these plants. They also spread gradually, so I’ve been dividing them every couple years and adding them all over the yard. Prairie Moon is a good source for Bloodroot, if you don’t know anyone with some to divide.

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Zig Zag Goldenrod, aka solidago flexicaulis

Then there’s zig zag goldenrod, the only goldenrod to thrive in shade. It blooms at the very opposite end of the season, August-October. I’m slowly adding this to all shady areas of my yard. I’ve always had plenty of blooms from June-August, but have been a little lacking in the very beginning and end of the season. Time to work on that.

Getting back to the garden plan, the first bed on the far left has greens in it, and I think this is about all I’ll be able to grow in this spot anymore. The arbor is shading this area of the garden for a significant portion of the day now, too. I had my tomatoes in that spot last year and they performed dismally—lots of green foliage but hardly any tomatoes, a classic sign of insufficient light.

Next we have some turnips, onions, and beets, in the spot where I grew leeks and onions last year. After this year I will have to let this spot rest from members of the allium family or I’m going to create a problem.

Next is the spot where I’ll put my tomato cage, except this year I’m growing heirloom dried beans in it. Legumes for the win! I plan to leave the cage in this spot permanently—we discovered this spring that moving it is a major pain. So I’ll rotate legumes and tomatoes in and out of it each year, relying on pots and/or my community garden plot in the years I don’t put tomatoes in this garden.

Finally we have the spot where I planted some garlic last fall. If it survives the insane sub-zero temperatures that are arriving shortly, it will be so fun to have garlic again. I haven’t grown it in a few years. I’m going to try following it up with some watermelon radishes; they are better when grown in the later season.

So that’s my plan, in a nutshell. I’ll also do various pots and edible landscaping tricks. I have a very large new sunny area in the backyard now that is raising all kinds of possibilities. Eventually it will be a mini tallgrass prairie, but for now… maybe we could grow some watermelons…


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Garden Plan 2017

Taking a small break from the absolute dumpster fire that is America’s national politics (I feel so very fortunate to live in this city and state), I spent some time last week putting together a garden plan for 2017.

Planning a garden right now feels different than it ever has, I suppose because I feel different than I ever have. Of course, I’ve felt sad and anxious about American politics many times during my adult life, but (foolishly, perhaps?) I never felt raw fear. I realize this places me firmly in a position of privilege.

But at the end of the day, a garden is a garden, and even though I am changed, my garden is very similar to what I’ve grown in the past. Comfort in the familiar, perhaps? Without further ado:

gardenlayout17

Left to right, also west to east, in the main garden we’ve got:

Bed #1: collard greens, parsnips, and onions, with snap peas and cucumbers climbing up the trellis at the back. A single row of garlic is already in the ground on the right edge.

Bed #2: garlic, beets, and bush beans. Bed #2 is my widest garden bed; as usual I’m pushing it to the limit.

Bed #3: tomatoes. I’m giving up on interplanting tomatoes with anything this year. They just get so huge. Additionally, I may create a new squirrel-proof enclosure to grow them in, which will surely take up the whole area with no room for anything else.

Bed #4: something new! I’m going to try okra this year. I love eating okra, and it would be nice to be able to teach my Sabathani students how to grow it in our climate. Okra is a wonderful plant for mixing in your sunny flower beds—the flowers are large and tropical, similar to hibiscus in appearance. I’ll also put eggplant, runner beans, and shallots in bed #4.

At my Sabathani community garden plot, I’m going to be slightly more ambitious than in previous years. I want to grow quite a bit of lavender, so I’m planting a “hedge” of it all the way around the edge. I also hope this will help establish a neat border for my garden, resulting in fewer people walking through it.

I’ll still plant potatoes and squash there, but fewer, two hills each of summer squash—Pattison Panache, and winter squash—Turk’s Turban.

What’s new for 2017? I’m giving up on radishes after so many disappointing harvests. I’m also going to try carrots in a pot this year, having had less than stellar luck in the carrot division as well.

I’ve got several expanded flower beds at home to fill up with new plants this spring. I am going to try blueberries again, but this time in a half-barrel with acidified soil. I’ll also plant ground cherries. The rest of the open areas will be filled in with flowers, including these:

Blanket Flower — these are petite, make a great flower bed edge plant, and last year they bloomed from Late June-November. Seriously, November. I saw bees on them all the time, too.
Goldenrod — so important for late-season pollinators, gorgeous winter interest, and there are cultivars in various shapes and sizes.
Prairie Smoke — a tiny plant to put right along a path in a sunny spot. Beautiful, very early flowers followed by cool, smoky seedheads.
Little Bluestem — I first fell in love with Little Bluestem as a landscape plant for a very practical reason: it’s easy to identify because it looks so different from the various grassy weeds that plague my garden beds. But it’s also gorgeous in the winter, and provides food for skippers and birds. Here’s a great overview.
Solomon’s Seal — my favorite native shade plant. It’s gorgeous. It’s well-behaved. It’s easy to identify. It tolerates the dry shade under a very large maple tree. I’ve never tried making medicines with it, but the medicinal uses sound fascinating.

Why do I love these plants? They’re all natives, they all support pollinators, and they’re all gorgeous in the landscape, as well as relatively well-behaved. I’ve heard goldenrod can get weedy but I’ve not experienced that first-hand, perhaps because I have it planted in part-shade.

In making this list, I’ve just realized something. I was going to add Purple Pasque Flower to the list; I planted it in 2015 and its bloom in ’16 was gorgeous. I could have sworn I had found it in the native plants section, but I’ve just realized it is NOT native. There is a native purple pasque flower and a non-native purple pasque flower. You see, even master gardeners make mistakes all the time.

So, if I add more pasque flowers I’ll know which ones are correct, next time.

I also have BIG plans at Sabathani Community Garden this year—and I hope they translate into increased access to healthy, fresh food for the people who garden there. I will write a separate post about this after presenting the plan next week and hopefully getting the green light from garden leaders.

It’s time to translate my anxiety into action. Gardening is where I shine, so that’s where I need to put my energy.

Another upcoming post: I took a seed starting class recently where I learned some new things, enough that I’m going to give it a try again this year. In the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my new strategies as well as a schedule for getting everything in. Spring is truly right around the corner.

 


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Farewell to 2014

Wow, I haven’t posted since early November. Hello again, friends. Our holiday season was full of the usual ups and downs. Here is a brief overview:

Knitting a scarfWe spent the better part of November evenings and weekends listening to Harry Potter on audio and knitting; here Anneke and I are finishing a wool scarf for her.

Goldenrod seedhead in winterHere’s a goldenrod seed head catching the low winter sun. We have not gotten a very heavy snowfall yet this winter, so my front yard still looks either really messy or really beautiful, depending on your point of view. I don’t clean up any of my perennials in the fall; the seed heads feed the birds and the foliage provides shelter for various overwintering insects. Whatever’s left in the spring can go in the compost at that point.

Long Island Cheese PumpkinWe’ve eaten no small amount of pumpkin this fall. I’ve been using this method to bake my Long Island Cheese pumpkins: cut in half, turn upside down, brush the skin with olive oil, bake at 350 until done (usually at least an hour). These have so much moisture in them that I ended up having to skim liquid out of the cookie sheets lest they overflow. The end result is a nice concentrated pumpkin flavor; this was truly a delicious variety. We still have quite a bit of it left in the freezer, so the pumpkin breads/pies/muffins/everything can continue unabated for a while yet.

Mark it 8We had a fun Christmas, which included what might become a yearly bowling tradition. Mark it 8, Anneke.

Minnehaha CreekWe live in such a beautiful area. At the bottom of our favorite nearby sledding hill is beautiful Minnehaha Creek. When it freezes over the kids try to slide all the way to it and land on it. It’s neat that many of my fondest memories from my country childhood are possible for my kids to experience right here in the city. Love ya, Minneapolis!

I hope to be back with the start of some 2015 gardening plans in January, but in the meantime, snuggle up and stay warm. Happy New Year!


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North Shore Inspiration

We went on a camping trip during the second half of July. Our campsite was spectacular: on a cliff above Lake Superior with a view of Split Rock Light House.

Split Rock Lighthouse at sunriseThe view, with my morning coffee. It’s worth it to pack the french press in.

Wildflowers of MinnesotaI also took along a book that I picked up earlier this year, Wildflowers of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela. This pocket-size guide slowed down our hikes and made them much more interesting. For one, it helped us identify the not-so-native-yet-gorgeous garden lupines blooming along the highway.

But naturally not everything is in the book, and one flower that I really loved was not included:

 

Northbush HoneysuckleThe naturalist at Tettegouche State Park helped me identify this small bush as a North Bush Honeysuckle, a native honeysuckle not related to the large tropical ones you usually see in gardens, but somewhat similar in appearance. A very nice compact little shrub that was blooming all over Tettegouche State Park when we were there, in shade to part-shade situations.

Here was another landscape design inspiration that I saw:

Tall ferns with leafy green plants underneathI am not great at fern identification, but I think this is some type of wood fern.  But I really thought this general look—tall ferns with leafy green groundcover like wild ginger underneath—could look really nice in a deeply shaded city lot. I have not had great luck with ferns in my particular yard; 70% of the ones I planted back in 2012 have perished. The one exception is my ostrich ferns, which are thriving. I think my shady areas are simply too dry.

Wild roseThe wild roses were also in bloom. Gorgeous. Now that my older hybrid rose bush is dying out, I might replace it with an old-fashioned or wild rose variety which would provide us with rosehips. They make amazing herbal tea.

HarebellsHarebells growing out of rock crevices.

Hunting crayfishSure, the waterfall is gorgeous, but there are crayfish in here, Mom!

All this inspiration is going to serve me well, because we’re removing our apple trees this week! The crab apple in front is already gone, and the larger apple tree in back is going as soon as we can get it set up with the power company, which has lines are running through it.

I’m starting my 2015 garden plan already, and there’s going to be two major expansions, one in front and one in back. Exciting times!


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Happy Birthday NHE!

I just realized I’ve been writing this blog for two whole years now!  In case you haven’t been reading this since the beginning, this blog was inspired by a project that I did with some other people who are a lot smarter than I am, The New Liberal ArtsCheck it out!  A great, thought-provoking little read.

Just for fun, here are my top posts of all time:
Recipe: fermented salsa
Recipe: Easy, no-knead whole wheat bread
Cooking with lard
Welcome (my first post!)
Buyer-beware: ultra-pasteurized milk

Shoot, those are all food-related posts.  My personal favorite posts are all garden-related.  Anyway, thanks for reading!  Any requests?  More recipes?  Less gardening?  (Fat chance, if so!)


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A home improvement project

Our kitchen has a cute little breakfast nook that unfortunately featured somewhat dysfunctional fluorescent lights with cheesy 80s-style plastic diffusers.  They have bugged Adam since we moved in.  We’ve had an old “booth” style table in the nook since we moved in, that Adam’s parents gave us (later we added two Ikea chairs):

It worked pretty well, but the whole thing was getting very rickety and it was never really the style we intended for our house.  So, a couple weeks ago the table went to a grateful family from the craigslist free site, and the diffusers went out to the curb.

Adam framed up the hole in the ceiling and installed a couple of light fixtures.  Then our neighbor helped him lift a large piece of sheetrock into place:

A couple smaller pieces and it was ready for what seemed like two full weeks of constant mudding and sanding.

In the meantime, we also found a table and 4 chairs for $80 on craigslist that was the perfect size and style for our spot.  The only problem was that the chairs were in pretty bad shape — the one shown in the picture was one of the better ones:

So Adam decided to further complicate the project by trying his hand at upholstery.  A 50% off coupon and $40-some later he had some sparkly red vinyl from Jo-Ann Fabrics, and away he went.  They turned out great!

As soon as all the taping/mudding/painting was done and dry, Adam installed two new light fixtures (they’re Martha Stewart schoolhouse-style ones).  And project =  complete!  Well almost.  The fourth chair is still in limbo because it needed to be glued together and Adam has not yet found a glue that works well for this.  We might end up having to buy a replacement for the fourth chair.  But other than that, we are done.  And pretty cheaply too, I might add.

This seems like a relatively small project compared with what we used to do before we had kids, but at this point, after having done almost no home improvement for nearly 3 years, it feels great just to get something done: the first of many projects that we can finally check off the list.