Hickory, dickory, dock

I have been wielding the chainsaw quite a bit: On the mulberry in the front yard, on the tree of heaven next to the house, and most recently on the ash tree in the vacant lot. That left things out of whack and it is time to get back some balance – restore the yin and yang.

We didn’t have trees in our parkway by the street. That changed last year when we planted a small oak in front of the house. But I still wanted to find another tree for the parkway in front of the vacant lot.


Lo and behold, I had the opportunity to salvage a tree for our parkway – although the salvaging operation may have been more like butchering.

One of my clients had a small hickory growing next to a big oak. To preserve the oak and keep it free from competition we had planned to remove the hickory. This fall, I asked my clients if they would mind me digging up and transplanting the hickory rather than cutting it down. My clients were gracious enough let me have a go at it.


I wasn’t sure if I could get a viable root ball on that hickory because of its proximity to the oak. Fortunately, I didn’t have any big oak roots in the way.

But that was only half the struggle.

Do you know why hickories are rare to find in the nursery trade? Because they develop and rely on a taproot, which makes them notoriously difficult to transplant. And boy, did this sucker have a taproot – which I had to cut. This was the point where the transplanting turned into butchering.

On top of this, I had to drive with the tree in my truck 40 miles south. I tried to protect it from drying out as best as I could, and drove as slow as I could without causing pile up. Once back home I wished I would have opted for the quick death (i.e. cutting it down), rather than torturing that poor thing.

I tried to make up for it with some extra care while planting it in the parkway and some diligent watering.


But I have to say that I have no expectation that will come back next spring. If it does, I will refer to it as a resilient son of a bitch! And that will be a compliment.

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Green fuzz growing

The sedges I started to grow last winter have progressed rather nicely this summer, from the tender green fuzz this spring to four inch tall plants that are well rooted.

sedges-04 sedges-05

They are ready to vacate their pots and find a new home in the parkway rain garden, although this will have to wait till next spring after I am done with the rain garden preparations. If we get the promised mild winter, I may even get some preparations done this year.

And the sedges will have company! Late this summer we divided a whole lot of wild geraniums at one of my clients’ rain gardens.

sedges-06 sedges-07

We ended up with so many extra rhizomes that I took a bunch home and potted them. Some of them were in a hurry to put on some growth and developed leaves.


I also needed to cage them because the squirrels kept digging them up to take a nibble. After replanting some of the unearthed rhizomes for the third time, I prescribed protective custody, thus the wire mesh.

I now can dedicate some thought to what other companion species I would like to include in the rain garden, to keep it functional and with seasonal interest.

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Porch roof level

Our new back porch needs a roof!

During construction, we got as far as the 2nd floor level when I had to hit the pause button. Several rows of loose brick needed my attention, followed by masonry repair atop the south wall.

Building the porch roof followed a now familiar pattern: getting stairs and landings in place, putting up ledger boards, installing joists, covering everything with plywood and installing the roofing system.

What was much more interesting was the staircase extension to the roof level, because it was about the devil and the details. I wouldn’t have minded a little break for the few neurons I have left – some mindless work. SOL!

Roof slope

The roof access extension has a south facing sloped roof. This will be prime real estate for solar renewables. Solar hot water panels should be installed at a 55 degree angle. Photovoltaic panels are more fussy. They like a 66 degree angle in winter, 42 degree in spring/fall and 18 degree in summer.

Now think about these numbers for a minute. This roof could turn into a really interesting art project, making Frank Gehry look pale. But I don’t have a minute, and my neurons are not firing right.

So, how do we determine the roof slope? Not through solar angles, but by the means of dimensional facts. We can extend the roof access by ten feet above the existing roof, and we need to make sure we have enough head room (says the tall German).


End result: A 28 degree roof slope.

Roof drainage

Drainage is following me around. It often dominates my professional life, which I don’t mind at all. And in a gravity defying stunt, it was following me all the way up onto the roof – which also has to drain. Surprise!

Whereas previously the entire south edge drained the roof, almost half of that edge is now blocked by the new roof access. I had to make sure we had a tall enough curb to direct roof runoff around the extension. The alternative was to have a waterfall feature cascading down the porch staircase … a charming idea with a lifespan of microseconds.

Redirecting the roof runoff by means of a two by eight, which we set on the roof deck between the two posts, sounded much less adventurous. Good – give boring a chance!


Roof access

Ease of access was another issue. The options my porch builder and I discussed all involved a rather tall door threshold. The thought of stepping six or eight inches up and through the door generated mental scenarios of tripping and falling onto the roof. That’s not a place where you want to trip.

So, we built a little square landing atop the roof framing to get us to an elevation where I could walk out the door with a normal threshold and step down onto the porch roof. That stepping down seemed less of a tip hazard. Subjective? It is.

This all took some tinkering, because the roof framing has a slope while the landing has to be level.

Finishing touches

Our porch builder finished his job by installing the gutters and downspout, and the last heavy duty hardware items. This porch is built so solidly, I could park my truck on it – if only there would be a way to get it up there.


This back porch is a head turner (just ignore the piles of construction materials). Cathy and I are very happy with the end product. Our porch builder, Espinoza Construction was very good to work with, easy to communicate with and Edgar and his crew were always thinking a step or two ahead. We are impressed with the quality of work they delivered. Not only that, but they also put up with me through the entire process, which is possibly their biggest achievement.

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South wall brick repair

I threw a lot of loose brick scraps around. And after having reached rock solid layers of brick, I was ready to test my masonry skills again.

I learned early on in the project that the combination of a 100+ year old building and Chicago common brick requires not just any mortar, but a special kind of mortar – the Type O kind.

The mortar joints in these masonry walls are meant to be the sacrificial layers – because they are easy to repair through tuck pointing. Replacing damaged bricks is much more involved and labor intensive. To prevent brick damage or spalling, and to assure a functioning sacrificial joint, the mortar needs to be softer than the brick. That is where the Type O comes in handy, if used in combination with our common brick.

For more details and rationales on the Type O mortar, read my earlier post: Bricks and mortar.

To make the mortar work and have it properly cure, I had to prevent it from drying out. The common brick is a very effective sponge, and can suck the moisture out of mortar within a few minutes – unless the common brick is already wet.


Before I could slap any mortar onto the bricks, I needed to spray down the existing masonry wall and soak the replacement bricks in a bucket of water. And believe me, one quick spray or one quick dunk won’t do it. Common brick is a sponge, and it needs wetting like a sponge.

Once the tedious due diligence is out the way, I was ready to slap mortar on the bricks and start rebuilding the top of our south wall, so that we could get to building the roof level of our new back porch.

I am glad that the time lapse doesn’t provide any close-up view, because my masonry skills are OK yet still basic. In other words, my work is not that purdy! Do I care? No! Not as long as the work is sturdy. That part of the wall will be covered with a big old ledger anyways.

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Bricks + Scraps = Loose

I am ready to throw some bricks around. To do so, I first have to climb out of the hole, leave the porch basement floor behind, and ascend to the brand new 2nd floor porch level.

Edgar, our carpenter, and I had a number of conversations this spring, thinking through the process of rebuilding the back porch. Back then, he pointed out that we would encounter a lot of loose bricks right at roof level.


That prediction didn’t surprise me because this section of the masonry wall isn’t that dissimilar to the parapet. And boy, that parapet was in bad shape, until we rebuilt it.


Removing the loose bricks was somewhat of a déjà vu with some subtle differences.

The only whole bricks I encountered were on the outside. The inner wythe was almost completely composed of brick scraps. This must have been the last bit of masonry work when they raised the walls. Was this resource efficiency or did they simply run out of good bricks? Whatever it was, the extensive use of brick scraps didn’t produce very solid masonry.

I had to pull out all those loose bricks until I was down to solid masonry again.

When we insulated the second floor, I didn’t insulate behind the last roof joist. There simply wasn’t enough room to get into those two inches between the joist and the masonry wall.

Now, with the brick removed, I had all the space I needed to get into that space and insulate it with pieces of two inch thick XPS boards. I can’t lose sight of the air tight building envelope principle. So I made sure to seal around all the XPS edges with spray foam.

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