Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Passing the time in lockdown: fence repair

Like you, we are in lockdown. We are in Pasadena, California (part of LA County) and we feel especially lucky that we have a garden and that the weather is (finally) good.

For the last few days, I have been in the yard repairing our termite-ridden, falling-apart fence, and learning the process. I use the word ‘repair’ loosely as I realize that it is not a long-term solution to put fresh wood pickets against wood that is being chewed by termites. However, this is a patch job and the pickets are cheap.

In the photo below you can see the fence I was working on. There is one missing picket, and, on either side of the gap, there are two fairly rotten pickets. I originally planned to do all three, but in the end, I just did two. To make the job extra challenging, the fence is helpfully behind a fairly delicate Jade plant, which drops its leaves at the slightest touch. My goal was to repair the fence without destroying the plant.


Tools: After working on the fence for a few days, I’d got the tool situation down to the minimum. To get the fence pickets the right length I needed the tape measure, the triangle, the pencil, and the hand saw. To get the old picket and nails/screws etc out I needed the hammer and the flat head screwdriver. To fix the picket to the rail I needed the drill, the drill bit, the countersink bit, the drill bit with the phillips head on it, the phillips screwdriver and some screws. And gloves, of course.


The first job was to remove the old picket and the rusty nails that, once upon a time, were holding it on – without pulling down the whole fence or destroying the rail. Easier said than done especially when the whole fence has been chewed through by termites.


Because the pickets come in only approximate sizes, and because I was only repairing the fence, not building a whole new one, I made sure to check that the pickets were actually going to fit in the gap. I found that they often didn’t. Ideally one would take out both the old pickets to check the new ones both fitted… however, next door has a dog, and it would easily have got through the hole if I’d taken both out at once!


Then I cut my pickets to length.


Because I couldn’t take out both pickets at the same time (because of the dog), the next process took a little longer – on the other parts of the fence I was able to do multiple panels at each of the steps below.

The next step was to drill some holes for the screws. I got a drill bit that was slightly smaller than the screw, balanced the picket in its place, and drilled four holes – two at the top and two at the bottom, level with the nails/screws on the other panels. The drill went through the picket into the rail.


Then I switched to the countersink bit so that I could make a dent for the screw heads.


Then the final step was to get the picket screwed into place. I found that getting the screws started in the holes with the screwdriver was helpful.


Then it was time to look at the second picket (to the left of the one I just put up). I pulled it off and it pretty much disintegrated in a shower of termite droppings. Unfortunately, I then found the new picket I had selected was a hair too wide to fit in the gap. None of my remaining stash were any thinner, so there was nothing for it but to trim it longways. It was a little tedious to saw by hand but not impossible.


I repeated the procedure above, to get the finished result below. The next job (for another time) will be painting it.


My Post

Posted in Life

Sunday Project: compost

Sunday Project: June 28, 2015

It started back in October last year when I bought a compost bin from the City of Pasadena ($56).  I dutifully filled it with the appropriate layers and then waited for compost.

In May I opened it up and found that it looked exactly the same as when I loaded it up.  So, after advice from a friend on how to actually do it, I decided to start again.

First, I procured the right tools: one visit to later and I had some compost starter and a device for mixing the bin (an aerator).  Then I allocated half a day, grabbed a facemask and got to work.

I started by emptying all the material out of the current bin.  It looked largely identical to what I put in, just a little greyer. I found a nest of ants feeding off something, and a tiny patch of compost towards the middle back of the bin. I think that is the coolest spot and probably was dampest for longest.  I found one worm. I think it was dead.

The back of the box of compost starter, and other places on the internet, say to start the bottom layer with more woody materials to provide aeration. Luckily we are not short of twigs in the garden so I managed 6 inches of this quite easily.  I repacked some of the old compost, and added some drier leaves I raked off the lawn the previous day.

Then I had to find some green material.  Because the garden is so sparse I really had to look hard for places to prune.  The first set was the gunnera leaves which were yellowing rapidly. The stalks were very ‘wet’ so they all went in too. Then I added a good handful of the compost starter. This variety is supposed to contain microbes or something.

Then it was a case of adding more brown (easy) and more green (harder). After each brown layer I added some water – not sure why, it just seemed like the thing to do.

To obtain more green, I pruned around the bottom of the termite-eaten tree by the side of the house, and I pruned the privet bushes by the fence and I pruned the Chinese Elm growing along the side of the house.  By the time I’d layered brown, green, and starter and used everything in the yard the bin was pretty respectably full. I finished with a layer of brown, and gave it a water…

…then put the lid on.

Sit back and wait for the compost!
Sit back and wait for the compost!

I spent the rest of the day with my eyes streaming and nose running… luckily there doesn’t appear to have been any long term side-effects for me…

My goal is to add food scraps daily, covering them with handfuls of the old compost as I do, and to water when I remember. In a week or two I’ll stick the aerator thing in and see what’s going on.

Stay tuned for news of lovely brown compost!


Question: have you ever successfully made compost? Tell me how!


Posted in Life

First DIY: installing an over-the-range microwave

We accomplished our first DIY project last weekend!  And we didn’t even have to get the first-aid kit out.

We installed (read: nailed to the wall) a venting microwave above the oven. The idea is that the microwave has a built-in extractor system which you turn on when you’re cooking on the oven below. Because this is a ‘recirculating’ system, we didn’t have to cut any holes in the wall or the roof.


Initially we weren’t planning to do this ourselves.  I called the handyman who apparently had ‘done everything you can see’ in the house.  Unfortunately the handyman was ‘very busy’ and would call me ‘soon’.  So when he didn’t (and, still hasn’t) we decided to just get on with it.

The instructions provided were comprehensive and easy to follow, and once I’d had a look at some youtube videos (this one, and this one), I was confident we could do it.

Before we’d even bought the microwave we’d made sure the hole it was going in was the right size (yes) and that the cupboards were properly nailed to the wall (they didn’t move when we pulled hard).


Then we opened the cupboard above and discovered the electrical socket for the microwave was missing.  So we booked the electrician to come the Monday after our install.  He was recommended to me by a Caltech academic (they definitely know what they’re talking about!) and he actually came, and actually did a good job. Bonus.

The cupboard also had some mysterious thing in it, which I think could be a spice rack. Any ideas?

DSCN1637 DSCN1638

Anyway, it was disgusting, as was the whole inside of the cupboard, so I unscrewed the spice-rack thing and scrubbed the cupboard.

DSCN1641 DSCN1642 DSCN1643

Then we unpacked the box.


DSCN1632 DSCN1633

The next job was to find a stud in the wall so that the microwave, which is really heavy, would have some support.  Luckily we’d already bought a stud-finder ($10, home depot) so we put it to good use.


We also had to find the center line of the space for the microwave, and draw a big line down the wall (this was much more important than I appreciated at the time).  We used the spirit level a lot.


The instructions came with some handy templates, with the idea being you stick these onto the wall, and use them to work out where to drill your holes.  Brilliant.  You line up the template with the center line (see, important!), then draw a line along the bottom of the template for the next step.  In this process, using the spirit level to make sure the line was horizontal, we discovered that the wall has a bow in it at the stud.  The spirit level see-sawed over it. Those builders 111 years ago, I don’t know.


Folding to the right size and sticking on the bottom-of-the-cupboard template was almost harder than the whole rest of the job.  Sellotaping something to the underside of a cupboard shouldn’t be that difficult.


The next job was to get the microwave out of its box and turn it on its front, so we could get at the ‘plate’ which is what the microwave bottom hooks onto at the wall.  This is the flimsiest piece of metal you could imagine.  Here it is, attached to the microwave, for shipping.  The many holes are there to give you a chance that one of them lines up with a stud.


Then we lined up the plate on the wall, and marked our holes. The first hole we drilled was in drywall and had to be huge because they wanted us to use one of the supplied toggle bolts.



I managed not to get a picture of the final holes, but here’s one of the preliminary holes. In drilling we discovered the right hand hole also sort of lined up with a stud so with a bit of angled-drilling we got the screw into it.


Somehow I didn’t get a picture of the wall plate attached to the wall.  😦

Then we drilled holes in the cupboard above for the top screws.  Again, this is a preliminary picture.  Obviously the hole in the middle needed to fit a plug through it so it ended up a lot bigger! We also realized once we got the microwave in our arms that we actually needed three screws along the front, so we had to get the template and drill out again.


Then it was just a matter of picking up the microwave (which took two of us), hooking it into the flimsy hooks in the wall plate, and holding it up so one of us could get the screws in through the cupboard.  It took two tries but we got there.


DSCN1700 DSCN1702

I’m not going to say it was a perfect job – I was a bit conservative on how close I put the template to the bottom of the cupboard above so there’s a small gap.  But other than that, it’s more or less horizontal along both axes, and it hasn’t fallen down yet.  I’m going to call that a success.  And it only took a whole day.