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Carol Duran's Blog

By Carol Duran | Broker in Chicago, IL
  • Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects

    Posted Under: Curb Appeal in Chicago, Remodel & Renovate in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  April 30, 2014 7:38 AM  |  400 views  |  No comments

    Ramp up your curb appeal with cool landscaping projects you can easily pull off in a weekend.

    Project #1: Install Rigid Flower Bed Edging

    The setup: A crisp edge where the lawn meets the flower beds looks great and eases mowing. Opt for rigid edging — the flexible plastic stuff looks amateurish from day one.

    Use a charged garden hose to lay out a smooth curve.

    Tip: A “charged” garden hose full of water makes for a smoother, kink-free curve; charge up by turning on the spigot but leaving the sprayer off.

    With the hose as your guide, use a lawn edger or spade to cut away excess sod and make an incision for the edging. Tap in the edging with a rubber mallet and add the stakes. Trim the edging with a hacksaw, using a speed square to mark for cuts.

    Specs and cost: Steel -- $1.25 per lineal foot; aluminum -- $2.25 plf; rigid plastic or fiberglass -- $1.65 plf.

    Tools: Garden hose, flour or powdered chalk, lawn edger or spade, shovel, speed square, hacksaw, rubber mallet, hammer.

    Time: 1 day to edge a typical yard.

    Read on for more easy landscaping projects:

    Add an Earth Berm
    Build a Wall for a Raised Bed
    Install a Flagstone Path
    Add a Brick Tree Surround

    Project #2: Add an Earth Berm

    The setup: Create an eye-catching front yard feature by shaping a few cubic yards of topsoil into an undulating berm. Topped off with mulch, groundcover, and bushes, a berm adds interest and buffers street noise.

    Use a charged hose to outline the berm. Remove sod a couple of feet in from the perimeter. Add a few mounds, but max out at 3 feet high.

    Specs and cost: Three cubic yards of soil is enough for a good-sized berm. Expect to pay $15-$20 per cubic yard and $15–$60 for delivery -- a total of $60-$120.

    Tip: Don’t be tempted by those bags of topsoil at the home center: At $2.50 per cubic foot, a cubic yard (27 cubic feet) will end up costing you $67.50.

    Have a cubic yard of mulch dropped off as well ($15–$20). A dozen periwinkle starts, plus a few boxwood bushes and evergreens, will set you back another $140.

    Total for an 18-foot-long berm: $215–$280.

    Tools: Wheelbarrow, spade, shovel, garden rake, trowel.

    Time: A day to form the berm, another half-day for planting and mulching.

    Project #3: Build a Wall for a Raised Bed

    The setup: A stacked flagstone wall for your raised beds has an old-world look that mellows any landscape. Best of all, you don’t have to be stonemason to build one.

    Begin by laying out the wall with stakes and mason’s line. Tamp a level bed of sand for the first course. As you add courses, stagger joints at least 3 inches. Set each course back ¼-inch so the wall leans backward slightly. Once finished, back the wall with landscaping fabric before filling with topsoil.

    Specs and cost: Choose a stone of consistent thickness. Flagstone might be limestone, sandstone, shale -- any rock that splits into slabs. A ton of 2-inch-thick stone is enough for a wall 10 feet long and 12 inches high.

    Cost: About $300 for stones and sand.

    Tip: Permanent retaining walls should be backed by pea gravel for drainage. In some locations, walls taller than 3 feet high require a building permit.

    Tools: Stakes and mason’s line, spade, shovel, a 2-by-4 that’s 8 feet long, a 4-foot level, garden rake, tamper.

    Time: 1 day for a 10-foot-long wall that’s 12 inches high.

    Want to see some cool retaining walls? Check out our slideshow, 8 Retaining Wall Ideas.

    Project #4: Install a Flagstone Path

    The setup: For a welcoming addition to your yard, add a flagstone pathway. Use a charged garden hose to mark a meandering path about 3 feet wide. Arrange flagstones within the path so they are 2–4 inches apart and mark their location with sprinkled flour.

    Tip: Sprinkling flour over the stones creates a “shadow” outline on the ground. When you remove the stones, you’ll have perfect outlines for cutting away the sod.

    Cut away 3–4 inches of sod beneath each stone, add a layer of sand, and level the flagstones as you place them.

    Specs and cost: For a 40-foot path about 3 feet wide, plan on 2 tons of flagstones and about a cubic yard of coarse sand. Cost: About $550.

    Tools: Garden hose, flour, spade, trowel, level.

    Time: 1 day for a 40-foot path.

    Want more detail? Get the inside scoop on our start-to-finish DIY paver project.

    Project #5: Add a Brick Tree Surround

    The setup: Installing a masonry surround for a tree eases mowing and looks great. All it takes is digging a circular trench, adding some sand, and installing brick or stone.

    Tip: To create a nice, even circle around the base of your tree, tie a big loop of rope around your tree. Adjust the length of the loop so when you pull it taut, the free end is right where you’d like the outer edge of the surround to be. Set your spade inside the loop with the handle plumb — straight up and down. Now, as you move around the tree, the loop of rope keeps the spade exactly the same distance from the base of the tree, creating a nice circle.

    Use the spade to cut into the sod all the way around the tree. Remove the rope, and dig out a circular trench about 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Add a layer of sand. Set bricks at an angle for a pleasing saw-tooth effect or lay them end-to-end. Fill the surround with 2–4 inches of mulch.

    Curious what trees to plant? Our popular slideshow tells you which trees you should never plant in your yard.

    Specs and cost: This is an instance where buying small quantities of materials at the home center makes sense. Brick pavers cost $.50-$1 each — figure about 20 per tree. A bag of mulch, enough for one tree, costs $2.50.

    Tools: Rope, spade, trowel.

    Time: 3 hours per tree.


  • 10 Steps to a Perfect Exterior Paint Job

    Posted Under: Home Selling in Chicago, Curb Appeal in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  July 31, 2013 2:27 PM  |  750 views  |  No comments

    Step 1: Get the lead out

    Do-it-yourselfers are not obligated to follow EPA regulations for lead-safe practices, as professional paint contractors must. But if your home was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use, you should protect yourself and your neighbors from airborne lead particles.

    The first step is to test for lead paint: Kits are available for $10 to $35 online, and at paint and hardware stores. If tests prove positive for lead, keep paint dust to a minimum by taking the following precautions.

    • Lay plastic drop cloths and collect scrapings.
    • Clean area with a HEPA vacuum.
    • Wear masks and Tyvek suits.
    • Dispose of all materials at an approved hazardous materials site.

    Read on to learn more:

    2. Wash the exterior
    3. Scrape off loose paint
    4. Sand rough spots
    5. Fill and repair
    6. Apply primer
    7. Caulk all joints
    8. Choose the right paint
    9. Apply top coat(s)
    10. Practice good maintenance

    Step 2: Wash the exterior

    Mildew thrives under fresh paint, which won’t adhere well to dirty, grimy, spore-sporting exterior walls. So wash your home’s exterior before painting.

    Use a mix of water and a phosphate-free cleanser such as Jomax House Cleaner ($15 per gallon) and Mildew Killer Concentrate ($8.50 for 32 ounces).

    You can hand-apply the solution with a sponge, which will take forever and many trips up and down the ladder. Or, hire a pro to pressure wash siding--not a task for an amateur, who can damage siding by pushing water under boards. (Cost varies by location: $150 to $750 for a professional to pressure wash the exterior of a 2,100-square-foot house.)

    Step 3: Scrape off loose paint

    Once clapboards are dry, remove loose, flaking paint.

    A handheld scraper is usually the best tool for the job, though you can also use a hot-air gun or infrared paint stripper. Never use an open-flame torch, which can easily start a fire and is illegal in most states unless you have a permit.

    To work lead-safe, wear a mask and Tyvek suit, spray water on the paint as you scrape, and collect the debris.

    Step 4: Sand rough spots

    A pad sander or random-orbit fitted with 80-grit sandpaper will smooth out any remaining rough spots. Take care not to push so hard that you leave sander marks in the wood.

    To be lead safe, use sanders fitted with HEPA filters.

    Step 5: Fill and repair

    After washing, scraping, and sanding your wood siding, step back and inspect what you’ve uncovered--holes, dings, and chips.

    Fill minor holes or dings in the siding with a patching putty or compound such as Zinsser’s Ready Patch ($20 per gallon).

    If you’ve got a major rot problem, summon a carpenter to replace the bad wood. Also, fix drainage problems that cause water to pool and promote rot.

    Step 6: Apply primer

    Apply primer immediately after preparing wood siding.

    White, gray, or tinted primer provides an even base for topcoats to adhere to, and a uniform canvas from which to survey your work. Small gaps in joints and around doors, windows, and other spots where horizontals meet verticals will all stand out in high relief, showing where you need to fill in with caulk.

    If you’re painting over bare wood or existing latex paint, then latex primer is fine. But if you’re painting over multiple coats of oil-based paint, it’s best to stick with a new coat of oil-based primer.

    Step 7: Caulk all joints

    Siliconized or top-of-the line polyurethane acrylic caulks give paint jobs a smooth, pleasing look. But the benefits aren’t purely aesthetic. Tight joints also prevent air leaks and block water penetration.

    Spring for the $7-a-tube polyurethane caulks with 55-year warranties, which will stand up to weather better than 35-year caulks that cost less than $3. The average house requires about seven tubes of caulk.

    Step 8: Choose the right paint

    Painting with water-based acrylic latex is so much easier than dealing with oil-based paints. Latex paint:

    • Applies easily
    • Dries quickly
    • Cleans up with soap and water

    If your house already sports an oil-based paint, which is more durable than latex, you’ll have to stick with it.

    Choose finishes carefully. As a rule, the higher the sheen, the better the paint is at blocking the sun’s damaging rays. Satin is fine for shingles or clapboards, but you’ll want gloss paint to protect high-traffic parts of a house, such as window casings, porches, and doorframes. A gallon of premium exterior latex costs $35 to $45.

    Step 9: Apply top coat(s)

    Less is more when it comes to applying top coats. More layers can result in paint flaking off through the years; less paint bonds better to layers beneath.

    If you’re going from a white house to yellow or cream, you might be able to get by with one coat. Going from a light to a dark house, and vice versa, usually requires two coats.

    Step 10: Practice good maintenance

    You can extend the life of a good paint job by:

    • Inspecting the caulk every year and replacing any that’s cracked or missing.
    • Removing mold or mildew.
    • Washing stains from nesting birds and pollen.
    • Touching up blisters and peels before they spread.
  • Tips for Adding Curb Appeal and Value to Your Home

    Posted Under: Curb Appeal in Chicago, Remodel & Renovate in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  July 17, 2013 4:29 PM  |  482 views  |  2 comments

    The way your house looks from the street -- attractively landscaped and well-maintained -- can add thousands to its value and cut the time it takes to sell. But which projects pump up curb appeal most? Some spit and polish goes a long way, and so does a dose of color.

    Tip #1: Wash your house’s face

    Before you scrape any paint or plant more azaleas, wash the dirt, mildew, and general grunge off the outside of your house. REALTORS® say washing a house can add $10,000 to $15,000 to the sale prices of some houses.

    A bucket of soapy water and a long-handled, soft-bristled brush can remove the dust and dirt that have splashed onto your wood, vinyl, metal, stucco, brick, and fiber cement siding. Power washers (rental: $75 per day) can reveal the true color of your flagstone walkways.

    Wash your windows inside and out, swipe cobwebs from eaves, and hose down downspouts. Don’t forget your garage door, which was once bright white. If you can’t spray off the dirt, scrub it off with a solution of 1/2 cup trisodium phosphate—TSP, available at grocery stores, hardware stores, and home improvement centers—dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

    You and a friend can make your house sparkle in a few weekends. A professional cleaning crew will cost hundreds--depending on the size of the house and number of windows--but will finish in a couple of days.

    Tip #2: Freshen the paint job

    The most commonly offered curb appeal advice from real estate pros and appraisers is to give the exterior of your home a good paint job. Buyers will instantly notice it, and appraisers will value it.
 
Of course, painting is an expensive and time-consuming facelift. To paint a 3,000-square-foot home, figure on spending $375 to $600 on paint; $1,500 to $3,000 on labor.

    Your best bet is to match the paint you already have: Scrape off a little and ask your local paint store to match it. Resist the urge to make a statement with color. An appraiser will mark down the value of a house that’s painted a wildly different color from its competition.


    Tip #3: Regard the roof

    The condition of your roof is one of the first things buyers notice and appraisers assess. Missing, curled, or faded shingles add nothing to the look or value of your house. If your neighbors have maintained or replaced their roofs, yours will look especially shabby.

    You can pay for roof repairs now, or pay for them later in a lower appraisal; appraisers will mark down the value by the cost of the repair. According to Remodeling magazine’s 2013 Cost vs. Value Report, the average cost of a new asphalt shingle roof is about $18,488.

    Some tired roofs look a lot better after you remove 25 years of dirt, moss, lichens, and algae. Don’t try cleaning your roof yourself: call a professional with the right tools and technique to clean it without damaging it. A 2,000 sq. ft. roof will take a day and $400 to $600 to clean professionally.


    Tip #4: Neaten the yard

    A well-manicured lawn, fresh mulch, and pruned shrubs boost the curb appeal of any home.

    Replace overgrown bushes with leafy plants and colorful annuals. Surround bushes and trees with dark or reddish-brown bark mulch, which gives a rich feel to the yard. Put a crisp edge on garden beds, pull weeds and invasive vines, and plant a few geraniums in pots.

    Green up your grass with lawn food and water. Cover bare spots with seeds and sod, get rid of crab grass, and mow regularly.

    Tip #5: Add a color splash

    Even a little color attracts and pleases the eye of would-be buyers.

    Plant a tulip border in the fall that will bloom in the spring. Dig a flowerbed by the mailbox and plant some pansies. Place a brightly colored bench or Adirondack chair on the front porch. Get a little daring, and paint the front door red or blue.

    These colorful touches won’t add to the value of our house: appraisers don’t give you extra points for a blue bench. But beautiful colors enhance curb appeal and help your house to sell faster.


    Tip #6: Glam your mailbox

    An upscale mailbox, architectural house numbers, or address plaques can make your house stand out.

    High-style die cast aluminum mailboxes range from $100 to $350. You can pick up a handsome, hand-painted mailbox for about $50. If you don’t buy new, at least give your old mailbox a facelift with paint and new house numbers.

    These days, your local home improvement center or hardware stores has an impressive selection of decorative numbers. Architectural address plaques, which you tack to the house or plant in the yard, typically range from $80 to $200. Brass house numbers range from $3 to $11 each, depending on size and style.

    Tip #7: Fence yourself in

    A picket fence with a garden gate to frame the yard is an asset. Not only does it add visual punch to your property, appraisers will give extra value to a fence in good condition, although it has more impact in a family-oriented neighborhood than an upscale retirement community.

    Expect to pay $2,000 to $3,500 for a professionally installed gated picket fence 3 feet high and 100 feet long.

    If you already have a fence, make sure it’s clean and in good condition. Replace broken gates and tighten loose latches.

    Tip #8: Maintenance is a must

    Nothing looks worse from the curb--and sets off subconscious alarms--like hanging gutters, missing bricks from the front steps, or peeling paint. Not only can these deferred maintenance items damage your home, but they can decrease the value of your house by 10%.

    Here are some maintenance chores that will dramatically help the look of your house.

    • Refasten sagging gutters.
    • Repoint bricks that have lost their mortar.
    • Reseal cracked asphalt.
    • Straighten shutters.
    • Replace cracked windows.
  • Tips for Saving Money in the Garden

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Chicago, Curb Appeal in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  June 5, 2013 11:20 AM  |  427 views  |  No comments

    So don’t impulsively drive to your garden center. Walk your land, consult an almanac, test the soil, and make a budget. You’ll save your back, your budget, and your home’s curb appeal.

    Tip #1: Get to know your land

    Before shelling out money for new plants, consider what’s thrived and died in past gardens. Ask, “Is this plant doing its job? Adding beauty? Providing shade? Creating borders?” Give a pink slip to landscaping that’s not pulling its weight.

    If you’re a newcomer to gardening or to the area, scout the neighborhood to see which plants look happy and which wither on the vine.

    Keep in mind that even plants appropriate for your growing zone might not work in your personal patch. Your particular soil conditions, sunlight patterns, pest populations, and available water will determine what will grow. Your local cooperative extension service can analyze your soil and recommend amendments and suitable plantings.

    Tip #2: Become sun savvy

    Even experienced gardeners make mistakes. They plant shade-loving plants in full sun or sun-loving plants in partial shade. Before planting anything in your garden, compare the amount of sunlight your landscaping needs for the amount you have.

    Evaluating garden sunlight is tricky because daylight is a moving target: Seasons change and plants mature and cast different shadows.

    So before plotting plant beds and tree locations, study the movement of the sun throughout the day and, if you have time, throughout the year. Calculate how many hours of sun each garden section receives. Then check planting directions to make sure your greenery will get what it needs.

    Tip #3: Become water wise

    Over-watering plants can kill your landscaping and budget. To avoid death by water, know how much and when your greens need to drink: Sales tags should have watering directions.

    Drip hoses are thrifty ways to water plants, because the water goes directly to roots, drop by drop. Wind drip hoses around tree bases and bottoms of shrubs. Put hoses on automatic timers to avoid over-watering.

    If you have an in-ground sprinkler system, install an ET (evapotranspiraton) controller. These systems, which use real-time weather data sent by satellite to control when sprinklers turn on and off, can cut water use by as much as 30%. The controller costs between $300 and $400, depending on system size, but many municipal water agencies offer rebates, particularly in the arid Southwest.

    Tip # 4: Mulch much

    Spreading a few inches of mulch in landscaping beds protects your plants and shrubs from drying out, and makes beds look tidy and uniform. Mulch also keeps down weeds and moderates soil temperature.

    Organic mulches--grass clippings, wood chips, pine needles--eventually decompose and add vital nutrients to your soil and landscaping. Organics also encourage worm growth, nature’s own soil tillers and fertilizers.

    Shredded bark mulch from the garden center provides a rich look for your beds, adding curb appeal. It also prevents dirt from splashing on leaves.

    Tip #5: Color your garden

    Stick to a simple color scheme for flowers and blooming shrubs in your garden. Your landscaping will look more cohesive and professional.

    Massing plants of coordinated colors creates a sense of luxury and order. If you like pinks, add lavenders and blue-hued plants. If hot red is your color, mix with yellows and oranges.

    Keeping to a single color family in your garden also narrows your focus when roaming plant center aisles. If you are a gardening newbie and can’t tell a tea rose from a trumpet vine, ask the store’s plant expert for help. Most will be glad to exchange their knowledge for a sale.

    Also, gardening catalogs and websites often group complementary colors together. Some even provide a complete landscape plan, which you can faithfully recreate.

    Tip #6: Avoid invaders

    Ivies, grasses, and vines will fill in your garden quickly, and just as quickly take over your landscaping. Once these “invasives” take root, unearthing them is difficult, and in some cases, impossible.

    Your garden center doesn’t call these spreaders “invasives.” They are billed as “fast growers” or “aggressives,” but often that’s code for non-native plants that take over the landscape and crowd out locals by stealing nutrients, light, and water.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a list of invasives that includes various ivies, grasses, weeds, vines, self-seeding varieties of bushes and shrubs, and even seemingly innocuous herbs, like mint. Your county extension service can steer you toward the species best suited to your garden. Warning: If you love growing mint, grow it in a pot on your deck or patio.

    Tip #7: Beware of neighbors bearing green gifts


    You should love thy neighbor, but don’t ever take cuttings from their gardens unless you know exactly what they are and how they grow. Self-seeding perennials, such as Black-Eyed Susans and coneflowers, will quickly fill bare spots with splashes of color. If you tire of them, just grab a spade and dig them out.

    But if a neighbor extends a slender stalk of Rose of Sharon, or other invasive tree species, run away screaming. These trees will spread throughout your yard and grow roots so deep that only a professional--or the better part of your weekend--can dig and pull them out.


    Tip #8: Plant shade trees for natural A/C


    Shade trees planted on the south and west sides of a house reduce cooling bills -- up to 25% -- and lower net carbon emissions. So include shade trees in your landscaping plan.

    Choose shade trees according to their size at maturity, which could be 20 years away. Dense deciduous trees -- maples, poplars, cottonwoods--are good selections because their leaves cool your house in summer, and their bare branches let light in during winter. Plant them close enough to shade your house, but not so close that they will overwhelm the space.

    If you want a faster growing shade tree, about 2 feet per year, select a northern red oak, Freeman maple, or tulip tree.

    Tip #9: Power down your lawn mower

    The Environmental Protection Agency says gas-powered lawn mowers contribute as much as 5% of the nation’s air pollution. Switching to new generation electric and push-reel mowers—which are lighter, quieter, and kinder to your lawn than power mowers—reduces emissions and cuts fuel consumption.

    To mow three-quarters of an acre of grass with a power mower requires 1 gallon of gas. As gas prices head to $4 per gallon, you could save $100 a year by switching to a muscle-powered or electric machine. An electric or good push-reel mower costs $150 to $250, so it will quickly pay for itself.

    Tip #10: Grade your landscaping

    Once a year, walk your property, cast a hard eye on your garden beds and ask, “Is that plant doing its job? Is it growing into its space, or wandering wherever it likes? Are leaves healthy or spotted with mold and pests? Are these greens improving curb appeal or just making my house look overrun?”

    If a plant or shrub isn’t working out, it’s compost. If shrubs are growing too close to your foundation--1 foot away is good--transplant or prune them.

    Make sure trees are growing no closer to your house than the width of their mature canopies. Otherwise roots can burrow into foundations, and overhanging branches can trap moisture against the roof or siding, leading to rot and insect damage.

    Check your flowering plants and shrubs to see if they are indeed flowering. Too few or dull blossoms should rally after a dose of fertilizer or layer of compost. An inexpensive alterative to commercial fertilizers is manure tea. Fill the foot of old pantyhose with a clump of cow or horse dung, tie the hose to the watering can handle, and let the manure steep in water. You can get weeks of nutrition from a little bit of dung.

  • Perennial Flowers: A Little Care Says 'Encore! Encore!' Each Year

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Chicago, Curb Appeal in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  May 29, 2013 11:48 AM  |  493 views  |  No comments

    Chose varieties, location wisely

    Growing perennial flowers is all about planting the right flower in the right spot. In other words: Know thy garden, and read thy plant label.

    “I’ve had couples in here fighting about whether a spot is sunny or shady,” says Alison Caldwell, buyer for Hicks Nurseries on Long Island, N.Y. “You really must know your site — sunny, shady, clay soil, or sandy — and then pick the appropriate plant.”

    Grow labels tells you everything a plant loves — partial shade or full sun, a lot of water or a little drought.

    “Succulents favor droughts, so don’t plant them next to a sprinkler head,” Caldwell says. “And hostas don’t want to be in full sun — their leaves burn.”

    Some hardy perennial flowers that grow from coast to coast, Florida to Maine, include:

    • Ornamental grasses
    • Hostas
    • Daylilies
    • Iris
    • Mums
    • Salvia
    • Yarrow

    Most perennial flowers appreciate well-drained soil; so, if necessary, amend your compacted or clay soil with leavening organic matter like compost, peat moss, and manure. This will create tiny pockets that contain air, water, and nutrients — the building blocks of healthy plants.

    Warning: Never try to break up clay soil with sand alone. Sand + clay + water = cement.

    Mulch miracles

    Mulching perennials gives them a fighting chance of surviving climate swings — frigid winters, blistering summers. After planting, mound up to 4 inches of mulch around the plant base. This insulation will keep soil temperature and moisture levels relatively constant, and protect plants from surprises — plants don’t like surprises — like record-warm winters and summer heat waves.

    Divide and nurture in spring

    Perennial flowers return each year bigger and better ... until they don’t. Overcrowding could be the culprit, and dividing the plant is the answer.

    You know it’s time to divide when blooms are fewer and smaller, and when the plant’s center is open or dead.

    “When it comes to dividing, every plant is a little different,” says Lance Walheim, author of Roses for Dummies and an expert at Bayer Advanced Garden, which makes lawn and pest products.

    You can break daylilies apart with your hand, but you’ll have to divide salvia’s hard root ball with a shovel or other sharp landscape tools.

    Plant and fertilize divisions in bare spots around your yard. Or have a perennial swap with neighbors — your daylilies for their hostas.

    If you decide not to divide, stake drooping stalks to protect against disease.

    Deadhead in summer; cut back in fall

    After blooms are spent, lop off their heads to direct energy to a second bloom, rather than a seed head. When the growing season is finished, and you’re cleaning up your garden for winter, cut off dead stalks and foliage. This will help plants get a good rest and return healthier and happier in spring.

  • Extend the Outdoor Living Season

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Chicago, Curb Appeal in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  May 22, 2013 2:34 PM  |  424 views  |  1 comment

    Make an outdoor living area comfy long after the sun sets or the leaves turn with outdoor lighting, a patio heater, and a glowing firepit or portable fireplace.

    With both lighting types, you can:

    • Light deck railings and stairs
    • Define the patio perimeter
    • Illuminate the edges of paths and walkways
    • Draw attention to a planter or tree

    Other fixtures light up dining tables, grill surfaces, and even underwater in swimming pools.

    Low-voltage fixtures clip onto a safe, 12-volt cable connected to a transformer, which plugs into a GFCI-protected 120-volt electrical outlet. A timer or light-sensitive control automatically turns lights on and off.

    A low-voltage lighting kit with eight LED stainless steel fixtures, 50 feet of cable, and a transformer starts at $60. Individual low-voltage fixtures range in price from $7 for a simple poly-resin fixture up to about $150 for architectural-grade, cast-brass models.

    Solar outdoor lighting fixtures don’t need cables and transformers. They simply turn themselves on automatically after dark. Each stand-alone fixture stakes into the ground or secures to a deck or exterior surface. You’ll save energy, as a sunlight-charged battery powers the bulb.

    The downside to solar fixtures is a dimmer glow than low-voltage fixtures, and fewer lighting hours – many solar fixtures run out of stored energy after 4-5 hours on the job. Cloudy days also reduce power.

    A four-pack of solar light fixtures that mount on top of deck posts starts at about $30. Or, check out a cast-aluminum solar lantern for about $60.

    Get glowing with a firepit or portable fireplace


    Bring a cozy glow and a stylish focal point to your outdoor living area with a firepit or portable fireplace. Irresistible for gathering, warming up, and roasting marshmallows, firepits and portable fireplaces come in a variety of materials, sizes, and styles. You’ll also find options for fueling your fire with wood, propane, gas, or gel cans.

    Check local fire codes first to find out if your community allows the use of a firepit or portable fireplace on the patio or lawn. (Never use a fire feature on a wood deck.)

    A firepit ($100-$500) is an open bowl, dish, or pan that varies in size from 24 inches across to about 40 inches. A firepit may come on a stand (some with wheels) or nestle into a tiled tabletop. Select a model with screening to contain flyaway sparks.

    A portable fireplace ($100-$600) features a chimney to vent smoke up and away from people. Some portable fireplaces offer 360-degree views of the fire.

    Warm up with a patio heater

    Boost the warmth of your outdoor living area by as much as 15-25 degrees in the fall or spring with the addition of a portable patio heater. You’ll find three basic models:

    • Freestanding units resemble large floor lamps. Set them anywhere on your patio that will accommodates their 7-8 foot height. Some models include wheels for mobility. Expect to pay from $150 to $1,500, depending on heat output and fuel source.
    • A tabletop patio heater rests on a table, bench, or garden wall. These compact units typically produce less heat than tall, freestanding models. Prices range from $100 to $450.
    • Ceiling- or wall-mount patio heaters free up floor and table space, and typically emit heat via a halogen lamp. Prices vary from $175 to $1,500.

    Make your selection based on how much outdoor living area you want to heat and whether you want a model powered by electricity or natural gas (each requiring a connection) or with a propane tank, which allows mobility.

    As a rule of thumb, a 47,000 BTU propane-powered, floor-standing patio heater ($200) will heat an 18-foot diameter space. A 20-pound propane tank (about $36, plus $13 for fuel) offers about 10 hours of heating time.

    Electric patio heaters use a quartz tube or halogen lamp that emits radiant heat. An infrared wall-mount electric patio heater ($450) equipped with a 1500-watt bulb heats a 9-foot area around the heater and uses about 14.4 kilowatts for a 10 hour period. At 8 cents per kilowatt for electricity, you spend about $1.15 to operate the unit for 10 hours.

  • Easy DIY Weekend Projects Under $300

    Posted Under: Curb Appeal in Chicago, Design & Decor in Chicago, How To... in Chicago  |  May 1, 2013 9:26 AM  |  428 views  |  No comments


    5 Easy DIY Weekend Projects Under $300

    Just another weekend? Not if you take advantage with one or more of these 5 great projects you can easily pull off for under $300.

    Project #1: Add a garden arbor entry.

    The setup: Install an eye-catching portal to your garden with a freestanding arbor. It’ll look great at the end of a garden path or framing a grassy area between planting beds.

    Specs and cost: Garden arbors can be priced up to thousands of dollars, but you can find nice-looking kits in redwood, cedar, and vinyl at your local home improvement or garden center for $200-$300. Typical sizes are about 7 feet high and 3-4 feet wide. You’ll have to assemble the kit yourself.

    Tools:
    Screwdriver; cordless drill/driver; hammer; tape measure. Kits come pre-cut and pre-drilled for easy assembly, and usually include screws. If fasteners aren’t included, check the materials list before you leave the store.

    Time: 3-5 hours

    Project #2: Install a window awning.


    The setup: Summer is super, but too much sunlight from south- and west-facing windows can heat up your interiors and make your AC work overtime. Beat that heat and save energy by using an awning to stop harsh sunlight before it enters your house.

    Specs and cost: Residential awnings come in many sizes and colors. Some are plastic or aluminum, but most are made with weatherproof fabrics. They’re engineered for wind resistance, and some are retractable. A 4-foot-wide awning with a 2.5-foot projection is $150-$250.

    Tools: Cordless drill/driver; adjustable wrench; tape measure; level. You can install an awning on any siding surface, but you’ll need a hammer drill to drill holes in brick. To prevent leaks, fill any drilled holes with silicone sealant before you install screws and bolts.

    Time
    : 3-4 hours

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CLa7W8Ivbtc


    Project # 3: Screen off your air conditioner from view.

    The setup: Air conditioning is great, but air conditioner condensers are ugly. Up your curb appeal quotient by hiding your AC condenser or heat pump unit with a simple screen.

    Specs and costs: An AC screen is typically 3-sided, about 40 inches high, and freestanding — you’ll want to be able to move it easily when it comes time to service your HVAC. For about $100, you can make a screen yourself using weather-resistant cedar or pressure-treated wood to build 3 frames, and filling each frame with plastic or pressure-treated lattice.

    Or, buy pre-made fencing panels. A 38-by-38-inch plastic fencing panel is about $50.

    Tools: Hammer; saw; cordless drill/driver; measuring tape; galvanized wood screws.

    Time: Build it yourself in 4-6 hours. Install pre-made fencing in 1-2 hours.

    Project # 4: Add garage storage.


    The setup: Shopping for garage storage solutions is definitely a kid-in-the-candy-store experience. There are so many cool shelves, hooks, and hangers available that you’ll need to prioritize your needs. Take stock of long-handled landscape tools, bikes, paint supplies, ladders, and odd ducks, such as that kayak. Measure your available space so you’ll have a rough idea of where everything goes.

    Specs and cost: Set your under-$300 budget, grab a cart, and get shopping. Many storage systems are made to be hung on drywall, but hooks and heavy items should be fastened directly to studs. Use a stud finder ($20) to locate solid framing.
     
    If your garage is unfinished, add strips of wood horizontally across studs so you’ll have something to fasten your storage goodies to. An 8-foot-long 2-by-4 is about $2.50.

    Tools: Cordless drill/driver; hammer; level; measuring tape; screws and nails.

    Time: This is a simple project, but not a fast one. Figure 6-10 hours to get everything where you want it, plus shopping. But, oh the fun in putting everything in its place!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLRML9gFQ3E&feature=player_embedded

    Project #5: Edging your garden.

    The setup: Edging is a great way to define your planting beds, corral garden mulch, and to separate your lawn from your garden or patio.

    Specs and cost: Wood and metal edging looks like tiny fencing; they’re 4-6 inches high. Some include spikes that hold the edging in position; other types must be partially buried. Cost is $1-$5 per foot.

    Plastic edging can be molded and colored to mimic brick, wood, and stone. About $20 for 10 feet.

    Concrete edging blocks are smooth, or textured to resemble stone. $15-$25 for 10 feet.

    Real stone edging is installed flush with the surrounding grade in a shallow trench on a bed of sand, so digging is required. Stone is sold by the ton and prices vary by region. You’ll need about one-third of a ton of flagstone to make an 8-inch-wide edging 50 feet long, costing $150-$200.

    Tools: Shovel; wheelbarrow; tin snips (for cutting plastic edging); work gloves.

    Time: Pre-made edging will take 2-3 hours for 50 feet; stone will take 6-10 hours.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgV_LEtwGsU&feature=player_embedded
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