yardwork

Cash me outside

If you follow me on instagram, you probably noticed I was spending A LOT of time out in our backyard this spring.

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As soon as the weather turned warm and things started turning green, I was out there every night. You may have even been sick of all the pictures and videos of our yard, usually with smoke pouring out of my charcoal grill and string lights hanging overhead. Sorry not sorry.

I grew up in cow and corn country in Upstate New York, so I was always outdoors in nice weather, and even though I live in Brooklyn now my love for the outdoors is just as strong. We were lucky enough to find an apartment with outdoor space years ago, but if you’ve been reading for a long while now, you’ll remember that the space out back was a little, well, rough around the edges when we first moved in.
A few years back I posted about the progress we’d made so far, which felt monumental at the time, but looking back at pictures seems pretty meager compared to how things look now. Up until that point we’d spent every Summer clearing out debris and weeds and sick unhealthy plants. It took a long time to get everything clean and tidy before we could even begin planting anything new or making the space livable and attractive.

That post was basically the beginning of when we were able to finally start planting, and since then things have changed quite a bit so I thought you might enjoy a little update.  I’ve planted plenty in the past few years, figured out what plants do well and which ones don’t, and added some fancy-pants new outdoor furniture to boot.

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I know I also mentioned this in my last gardening post too, but just to refresh your memory, we have a big evil mulberry tree out there that makes the yard a disgusting unusable mess for anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks out of every summer. The tree is too tall and the berries fall too far to make collecting them possible, so instead they just splatter into a juicy mulberry paste that attracts flies and ants and birds (and bird poo) and eventually turns moldy and stinky and awful. And guess what. We’re in the midst of berry season proper right now, so I haven’t been back there for a good three weeks. The photos in this post were taken a few weeks ago, just before it started.
Even when the tree isn’t dropping the got-damned berries, instead it’s shading most of the yard and sucking up all the moisture in the soil. As if the berries weren’t enough to deal with, that tree is the source of two little words that have made my life very difficult over the past few years.
Dry.
Shade.

It’s incredibly difficult to find plants that thrive in dry shade. Most shade plants are moisture lovers, and most drought-tolerant plants love lots of sunshine. So, after years of experimenting, I’ve basically learned that Hostas are my best friend if I want the yard to look green and lush. I know they’re kind of boring, but there are so many different colors and shapes and sizes available these days that even a yard filled with Hostas can look interesting and modern. I’d actually already figured this out before my last yard post, but at that point I’d only gotten around to planting few of them. These days they’re all over the place.

Bleeding Hearts and Coral Bells seem to do well back there too, so I’ve started mixing them in between the Hostas. There’s one little corner of the yard that gets a few hours of decent light, so I have some orange day lilies planted there, but they haven’t flowered yet and so far they just look like overgrown grass. Because I like to live dangerously, this spring I also decided to test the limits of the sunshine back there, and planted a sun-loving Forsythia against the fence. Fingers crossed!

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To mix in some color and texture, I like to fill pots with hardy annuals like wax begonias and I always do a few herbs in one of the big galvanized buckets we added a few years ago too. Sometimes they don’t get enough sun and don’t last the whole summer, but they’re nice while they last and so far they seem to be doing well this year.
Early in the spring I usually try some pansies too for some color and life while the hostas are just barely poking out of the ground, but they don’t really last once the weather turns hot and I’ll need to replace them with something else mid-summer. They looked great in the photo below, but they’re already starting to look pretty scraggly.

For the first time ever this year, I mulched a good portion of the beds to try to keep them moist and healthy during the hot dry spells we always seem to get in Brooklyn summers. Not only do I hope it’ll keep the plants happier, it also went a long way in making the yard feel so much more “finished” and attractive. We went with brown mulch so it doesn’t really “read” in photos all that well, but I promise it looks great in person, especially compared to bare dirt. Getting the heavy, wet, stinky bags of mulch out there meant carrying them all by hand through our apartment and out our bedroom window, and we needed about 30 bags for the area we mulched, but it was well worth the effort in the end and I really wish we’d done it sooner!

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When we first moved in there was an old swing in the yard, and a rotting old wooden table left by one of the previous tenants. We moved the swing into the back of the yard this spring, and the table has since fallen apart. I re-used the legs to build the red coffee table you’ll notice in some of these photos, but I don’t know how much longer that old wood will hold out. The paint is peeling pretty badly so I’m hoping new paint will protect it and help it last a few more years.
I just need to decide on a color…
Any suggestions?

Almost half of the yard space is covered in concrete and works as a patio area for us. When we first moved in I was disappointed that there wasn’t more space for planting, but now that I know how challenging it is to get plants to thrive in our dry shade conditions, I’m actually relieved that we have more space for entertaining and lounging.
That’s why we decided to make a pretty serious investment in outdoor furniture this year. Russell got me an outdoor sectional for my birthday, and it all kind of snowballed from there. Upgrading from the old two-seater swing made me suddenly realize how much more comfortable our outdoor space could be if we were willing to put the time and money into it, so I kind of went a little overboard with the online shopping. We’d gotten the dining table a few years ago but never really got around to finding chairs to go with it, so that was my next mission. Then came the throw pillows, and a deck box to store all the cushions and pillows in. Then we just stumbled on those black and grey club chairs one day and we had to have them! Luckily everything was (relatively) reasonably priced.
In case you’re interested, the sectional, dining chairs, and deck box are from Wayfair. Unfortunately the sectional and chairs don’t seem to be available right now. The outdoor throw pillows and big grey club chairs are from Target, and the dining table and lanterns are from Ikea.

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Things are looking a little more full and lush since I’ve taken these photos because we’ve had a lot of rain lately, so once the berries stop dropping I’ll get out there to clean up the mess and start barbecuing again! You’re more than welcome to live vicariously through my instagram stories, but my life really isn’t all that exciting so I’d suggest trying to find someone a little more interesting to follow!

Who knows, if things look different enough maybe I’ll give you another glimpse into our yard in another couple years.

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homemade taco seasoning

Why hello there! Longy time no seeum!

homemade taco seasoning | Brooklyn Homemaker

It’s been a minute, I know. Sorry about that.

I went upstate for a little vacation with my sister and her kids, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t have time to get a backup post together to share while I was away. We went to a Bluegrass festival in the Catskills for 5 glorious days, and while I missed you guys, I loved every second of it.

Amazing music and friendly strangers. Boiling hot days and freezing cold nights. Spending time with family. Getting drunk on whiskey and wine and dancing barefoot until the wee hours of the night. Going to sleep on a firmly inflated mattress and waking up on a rock. Drying blankets in the sun after accidentally leaving the tent windows open during a thunderstorm. Lifting my niece up over a sea of tents to see the rainbow after the storm. Doing my duty in a porta potty or at the grocery store bathroom…

Absolute heaven.

Grey Fox bluegrass festival Grey Fox bluegrass festival Grey Fox bluegrass festival

In keeping with my last post, I had ideas for a summery healthy dinner that I planned to share with you last week, but fate had other ideas. I scheduled an extra day off after the festival so I’d have time to nurse the world’s largest hangover. My plan was to make and photograph said recipe then. Two days into my trip however, things changed.

If you recall my “yardening” post from last spring, you may remember hearing about our “sickly plum tree” and seeing the trunk of said tree in the photo below.

tree trunk

Two days into my trip I received a text from Russell with this photo:

fallen tree

That’s taken from our bedroom window, and in the foreground you can see the deck we built last summer (with stairs to the right) to make getting out into the yard easier for us and the pups. The old “sickly plum tree” had just given up. Since we moved in I’ve been trying to figure out how to nurse the poor tree back to health, but the fact of the matter is that I had little to no idea what I was doing. I tried trimming off dead branches, but more kept dying, and every spring the leaves and fruit suffered from a white mildew that would cause all the fruit and about half of the leaves to fall off early in the summer.

Late last summer I noticed that the tree had A LOT of ants on it, and most of them would travel down to the base of the tree and disappear into the ground between the roots. Well, apparently the ants had decided to take advantage of the defenseless old tree and make a nice home in it’s trunk. When I finally got back home to take a look, the trunk of the tree was completely rotted out and had been turned into a dark and crumbly swiss cheese of insect tunnels. After fighting with all the strength it had left, the tree had finally just given up.

Seeing how bad the trunk was, I’m actually surprised it hadn’t fallen earlier.

Rather than making delicious food in the comfort of my home, on my day off I got to stand outside for several hours in 95 degree heat and cut the poor tree up into manageable chunks with the world’s dullest, rustiest handsaw. After waiting for almost a month for our landlord to fix our oven when it broke, we figured it wasn’t even worth asking for his help with the tree so I just did it myself. It was quite a workout though, so at least I can say it was all in the name of fitness.

Anyway, now the yard looks more like this.

fallen tree after

I’ve still got a lot of work to do to clear all the debris and get rid of the wood somehow (we can’t have fires back there, we tried once and had the fire department at our door within 20 minutes). Although I miss the tree, and it may take some getting used to, I actually really like how open the yard feels now. I feel like I might need to rethink my (meager) landscaping there, but the quality of light in our room feels so much nicer and brighter now, so that’s good.

SOOOooooo…

Without the time to photograph a full meal after the tree massacre, I thought I might share this taco seasoning I’ve been using lately instead. Russell and I tend to eat a lot of ground turkey or grilled chicken tacos, and now that we’re trying to eat better they’re a great meal we can make after work. There are a lot of small family owned tortilla factories in my neighborhood so we can get our corn tortillas super fresh. A few torillas filled with some well seasoned lean meat, sauteed onion, and black beans is the perfect quick and easy weeknight meal. Rather than cheese or sour cream, we like ours with a few creamy slices of ripe avocado.

homemade taco seasoning | Brooklyn Homemaker

I like to make my own seasoning because we make tacos so often. The store bought stuff is crazy salty and some of it has some really questionable ingredients that I’m not super comfortable eating on a regular basis.

This seasoning is not only fresher and much less salty, but you also know exactly what you’re putting into it and can customize it to your taste. I like my tacos nice and spicy, so in addition to the chile powder I like to add ground cayenne pepper too. Cinnamon adds a warmth without adding spicy heat, and smoked paprika adds a great warm smokiness. You may think cornstarch is an odd addition to a seasoning blend, but most taco seasoning does have thickening agents in it to help make a nice thick sauce. If you don’t like using cornstarch you could substitute arrowroot powder instead or leave it out altogether. It’s your party!

homemade taco seasoning | Brooklyn Homemaker

Homemade Taco Seasoning

  • Servings: makes about 6 ounces, enough for 4 to 6 pounds of meat
  • Print
adapted from Love & Olive Oil

6 tablespoons ground chile powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper, optional
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine all spices in a small bowl and whisk until evenly distributed. Can be stored in an airtight jar or container for future use. Recipe doubles (or triples, or more) very easily.

If using ground meat, brown the meat first then add seasoning along with a few tablespoons of water. You’ll want about 2 tablespoons of seasoning per pound of ground meat. Stir regularly until meat is fully cooked and sauce is thickened. I like to add a diced small onion while I brown the meat, and a drained can of black beans right at the end. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

You can also use the seasoning as a rub for chicken breast. Sear the chicken breasts until fully cooked and slice thin before adding to tacos.

a little yardening

I’m aware that yardening isn’t actually a word (yet), but I don’t actually care. Our outdoor space doesn’t have a solid identity or clearly defined purpose, so rather than fight it, I just let it be what it wants to be, a yarden.

a little "yarden" tour from Brooklyn Homemaker!

Easter Sunday was warm and sunny here in Brooklyn so we spent the bulk of our day in the yarden and I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the space. I plan to do some work back there this year so I thought it would be nice to give you some back story and show you what it looks like now (and what it used to look like). About half of the outdoor space is made up of a cement patio, which is pretty great for entertaining, and a mix of exposed dirt and a few plants that I’m trying desperately to keep alive. There isn’t enough sun to sustain grass, so it’s not quite a “yard”, and there aren’t enough thriving plants or well-defined beds to call it a “garden” so I just combine the two terms and there you have it: Yarden.

When we chose our apartment, one of the biggest selling points was that we would have access to some outdoor space.  The house was a mess, as we discussed here, but the garden space was even worse. We knew it was going to be a lot of work, but the (relative) affordability, the prospect of outdoor entertaining, the size of the outdoor space, and the possibility of getting a dog, made us move quickly to sign the lease.

 backyard "before" | Brooklyn Homemaker

The first time we came to check out our apartment it was late in the spring, but the weeds had already grown high enough to disguise the heaps of nasty lurking back there. We arranged our lease agreement to give us access to our new place 15 days before we needed to leave our old digs. We used the bulk of that time to deep clean and paint the interior, but on a few occasions we ventured into the back yard to investigate. We immediately realized we hadn’t been paying very close attention on our first visit. We knew there was a lot of crud back there, some of it was in plain sight from our bedroom, but as we went further out into the garden area we realized it was much worse than we thought. I don’t know if the previous tenants were criminally insane, or just slobs or what; but there were literal bags of garbage, like big black contractor bags full of yuck, hiding between the weeds. Once we started clearing the tangle of weeds all sorts of disgustingness started turning up. Beyond bagged garbage, there were also rotting stuffed animals, rotting outdoor furniture cushions, rotting articles of clothing, rotting pieces of wood, rusting sheets of metal, various plastic bags and toys, and lots and lots of broken glass. LOTS of broken glass.

When it came to the plant life back there, there was (and still is) a huge old mulberry tree that basically shades the entire yard and drops big juicy disgusting mulberries all over for about a month out of our short summer, along with a small dying fur tree that I ended up deciding to cut down, a sickly plum tree that always tries to produce fruit that never quite gets ripe before they rot and fall off the branches, a gigantic climbing rose vine that was plagued with some kind of mildew which caused the flowers to shrivel and die before blooming, a large patch of old day lilies that refused to flower, and a 3 foot high jungle of assorted weeds. My first order of business was to cut down the dying fur tree and cut back and dig out the rose vine, which was so large and old that it had started to grow into the plum tree and choke it out. Once I got the vine out of the way, I also had to do some major trimming to the plum tree in the hopes of nursing it back to health.

backyard "before" | Brooklyn Homemaker

I’m no gardening expert, so the past few years have been a bit of trial and error. Even cleaned up and tidy, our outdoor space is a challenge. The two horrible words that have turned my green(ish) thumb into a brown(ish) one are… DRY SHADE. We have no connection for a hose, and the soil refuses to hold onto moisture. It’s full of sand and weird construction materials (I’m still digging up bricks and chunks of cement), and tends to go bone-dry very quickly in the summer. The mulberry tree shades about 95% of the yard so anything that needs good sun refuses to thrive. In the beginning I was simply focusing on the shade aspect and planting things like ferns and other lush leafy shade plants, but the dry soil has caused the untimely deaths of MANY innocent plants. A few things have done alright, but one of the only things that seems happy back there are hostas. This year I’ve decided to focus my attention on planting a jungle of big leafy hostas in many sizes and colors, so the yard at least appears to be lush and healthy. I’ve also been researching drought tolerant shade plants a lot recently, so hopefully I’ll have some better luck this summer than I have previously.

To get the year started right, Russell and I recently took a trip to the farmers market hoping to find some new plants, a flat of annuals, and maybe some herbs to plant in containers. Unfortunately it was a bit too early for plants at the market so we went to Home Depot to see what we could find there instead. Even there it was too early for most things, but we were able to find some pretty purple pansies and a few herbs.

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When we were married last summer we used some big galvanized aluminum pails at the bar as ice buckets, and after the wedding we hung onto them. We also bought some nice rich garden soil to fill them with and have been hoarding it under our stairs and waiting for spring. So, when we came back from our plant hunt we busted out the drill and made some drain holes in the bottoms of three of the pails to turn them into planters.  I decided to use one of them to re-pot a lemon tree I planted from seed several years ago. It’s never given me any fruit, and since it needs to live in a pot and come indoors for the winters, I don’t know if it ever will. Regardless, I really like my little tree and decided it was time to give her a bigger home this year.

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Now that things are warming up, the few plants that have survived the arid conditions are starting to poke their heads up to say hi. We have a few daffodils in bloom and the spiky points of the hostas are starting to push their way up through the soil. We’ve also done our best to improve the soil with composting, and the day lilies are doing better now too. For now they’re short and grassy looking, but a few of them flowered last year so I’m hoping this summer they’ll be even more productive.

It’s a bit too early to do much of anything else, but I hope to set to work beautifying the yard in the coming weeks. For now we’re doing our best to clean up anything the wind may have blown into the yard over the winter, make sure anything that is coming up is happy and healthy, and tidy up the patio space as much as possible.

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As for the furniture and entertaining aspect of our outdoor space, we have a few chairs and benches and a swinging love seat that was back there when we took the apartment. There used to be a big table back there too, but it was really poorly built and basically fell apart over the winter, so we’re hoping to replace that very soon. When we first moved in the only way to access the yarden from our apartment was by hopping down onto a chair from our bedroom window, which is about 4 feet from the cement below.  For the first few years we and all of our guests would climb out the window and hop down onto that chair. We used to have to lean way out the window to set the dogs on the chair so they could go out and do the things they needed to do back there. Much alcohol has been consumed out there since we’ve moved in so, as you can imagine, there have been a few spills and tumbles. Thankfully none of our friends were ever seriously injured! My amazing mom came to visit last summer and helped me build a set of stairs, and we could not be more happy or grateful to have them. It’s hard to imagine a time without them now, but they have improved the function of the space more than you’ll ever know!

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So there you have it, our humble little yarden.

Have any of you been working on any yard work our outdoor projects lately? Do you have any horror stories about disgusting yards, challenging soil conditions, or drunken tumbles out apartment windows?