Archive for the 'Renovation and Construction' Category

Our farmette house has a small bedroom that we’ve always intended to reconfigure into an office where I can have more space to write my books. Since we borrowed some space for our master bedroom walk-in closet, the other bedroom (already small) lost two more feet. The new reconfiguration meant erecting two new walls and a closet.




The plaster is still drying on this wall

The plaster is drying on this wall next to the newly created closet



New walls, after framing and hanging the drywall to create them, must have the seams taped, holes filled, and drywall screws covered. That was done around Thanksgiving. Since then, it’s taken us several weeks to apply the joint compound plaster, letting each coat dry for 24 hours before we apply the next. We only work when we can find an hour or two free after our other work obligations.




While I’ve been mixing and applying small batches of the stuff that reminds me of pancake batter, my husband does it like a pro–mixing large batches in a five-gallon can. He’s also much faster and neater with the application process. I was doing the ceiling of the bathroom and got huge gobs of it in my hair. But already, I feel the energy of the room has shifted. It’s light and bright and clean. The space is neatly defined.



Our plans call for a bookcase on either side of a built-in desk on this wall

I want a bookcase on either side of a built-in desk on this wall




Before we can choose base boards and crown molding or the electrical materials for lighting, we still have to go through the sanding, cleanup, and priming for paint. We’ve decided to build bookcases, a built-in desk with good lighting over it, and a Murphy bed (so the room can double as a guestroom, when necessary) to maximize the space.




I love home renovation projects, and this office/guest room for the New Year is no exception. It’s taken a lot of patience. That noted, the payoff will be worth every minute we’ve spent on it.




For more tips on farmette projects, crafts, and delicious recipes, check out my newest mystery. It’s available on,, and other online and traditional bookstores everywhere.


The book cover for my debut novel, the first in the Henny Penny Farmette mystery series

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While others worry about getting sand bags in the event of rising storm water, my hubby and I went to the DIY store to buy some drywall early today. We are working hard on the small bedroom in our little house. Getting the drywall inside before the rain arrives was a priority. I’ll be so disappointed if the storm doesn’t bring rain to the Bay Area.



Last year, rain pooled in places because we hadn't finished putting the gravel down

Last year, rain pooled in places around our property (among them, the driveway) because we hadn’t finished putting loads of gravel down



We have a decent gravel driveway that we finally put in. Flooding hasn’t been a problem. Our chickens don’t mind the rain either. Instead of huddling together in their dry little designer chicken house, they prefer looking for the worms and bugs that show up during and after a storm.



Who minds wet feathers when there are worms to be found after a rainstorm?

Who minds wet feathers when there are worms to be found after a rainstorm?



Also, I’ve been tapping away on my computer keyboard, pounding out my latest mystery-in-progress. I had a pretty good idea come to me after I woke up this morning. That means my mind is working creatively even when I’m not typing words. I’m plotting and visualizing scenes and scenarios, making linkage and associations. This novel will be number three in my Henny Penny Farmette series, and I’m pretty excited about it.



While the work continues on the house and on my book, I’m also getting ready make up holiday baskets for family and friends, searching for lovely boxes, baskets, and cookie tins.



But I think that if this big storm that’s been forecast to arrive in the wee hours of the morning does arrive on schedule, I’ll spend an extra hour in bed tomorrow. I love sleeping in when a storm is howling outside my window. Sleep and rest nourish my little gray cells, too, meaning I might be more prolific at writing, carpentry, and crafting.  So bring on the storm.


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Black Friday Alternatives

Author: Meera, November 27, 2015

I suppose I just didn’t get the shopping gene in my DNA. So while everyone else shops the Black Friday specials, I’ll be  doing repairs on a room of our farmhouse. The second bedroom doesn’t yet have the windows completely framed, joint compound and tape on the seams, or plaster on the walls.



It would have been lovely to sleep longer today–this day after Thanksgiving–but our newly adopted cat woke me early. I made coffee and plucked navel oranges from the tree to put into the juicer. After a bagel, coffee, and a glass of juice, I mentally ticked off a list of things I wanted to do today. And I’d get right on those tasks after I watched the sun rise and observed the wild birds foraging at the feeders and the squirrels chasing each other along the fence.



There's only one fig left hanging on the tree but the squirrel seems intent on having it

There’s only one fig left hanging on the tree but the squirrel seems intent on having it




Nature is so seductive, I could have just as easily forgotten my to-do list and stayed outside, enjoying the fresh air and the natural world. I think it’s a terrific idea that many parks in California are waiving fees today to offer individuals and families the option of enjoying nature instead of shopping.



As for shopping, I think life could be much simpler if we just ask a question or two before purchasing: Do I really need it; or, do I just want it? For myself, or someone else?



I know the gift-giving holidays are weeks away. The season of sellers bombarding consumers with “buy” messages is upon us. Call me old-fashioned or blame it on my Midwestern farm-family upbringing, but I prefer to give and receive the gifts of self. Something homemade with love, if possible. Or the gift of time . . . extra hands to help me plant bulbs, put up blood orange jam, paint a room, or pluck eucalyptus leaves to make a holiday wreath.



A flash of blue signifies a jay in the yard.

A jay finishes its breakfast with a sip of water




What do people remember about shopping together? On the other hand, time spent with a friend, a child, or grandchild making a gift or doing something nice for someone can strengthen the bonds of love.



But back to my Friday punch list. I’ve checked my supplies for the day, and it looks like I’m out of Spackle. Arghh! I’ll have to go buy some. But this won’t be an impulse buy–it’s not something I want . . . it’s something I need to finish the job at hand. Enough said.



If you do love shopping and also enjoy reading, check out A BEELINE TO MURDER. See,



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Irises and roses make a lovely spring bouquet

Irises and roses make a lovely spring bouquet




When we first moved to the Bay Area from Miami, the heirs to the property behind ours gave us some bearded irises that had been planted in the 1950s by their parents. I recall the beauty of irises on  my grandmother’s farm in Missouri. She called them flags.



A raised bed of flowers looks lovely along the border of a lawn

For a lovely raised flower bed, plant other bloomers like cosmos, geraniums, pansies, nasturtiums, and marigolds with iris cultivars



Mostly colored in deep purples and blues, white, and pinkish-beige, the bearded irises have added an aesthetic appeal to our farmette that was mostly just a big field with a tiny house in the middle. We’ve planted them in the ground, along fences, and in raised boxes.



Easy to grow and maintain, the irises have become one of our favorite flowers. We’ve kept them going in our garden and they’ve rewarded us with many new rhizomes.



As we’ve continued to restore the farmette, we’ve built many four by six feet boxes for raised beds. The materials cost roughly $125 per box. We like them because we can easily control the soil (building it up with compost, manure, and other amendments), drainage, tilling, and weeds. Recently we decided to make irises the mainstay of a raised bed border.



We've interplanted citrus and bearded irises in this raised bed spanning the length of the front fence

We’ve interplanted citrus and bearded irises in this raised bed spanning the length of the front fence



Over the weekend, we built a long raised bed that extends the entire length of the fencing on the southwestern side of our property. In it,  we planted lots of citrus trees, climbing roses, and irises. If you are thinking of doing something comparable, have fun choosing from among the hundreds of cultivars of bearded and Siberian irises.



Irises are showy in any garden, alone or among other plants

Irises make a showy statement alone or among other plants



Plant them about three inches deep and a few inches apart in well drained, fertile soil. Irises need shade from the hottest sun and enjoy a deep drink of water, especially during blooming. I enjoy the ease of growing them in raised beds and love, love, love the magnificent color atop tall stalks when they bloom.



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“There’s never enough storage space!” It’s become a lament I want to banish from my frequent utterances.



Kitchen counter and cabinet during early reno

Our farmhouse kitchen counter and cabinets during early renovation. Carlos cut the sunburst pattern from blue-black granite




At roughly 1,000 square feet, our house isn’t terribly small by the 1970′s standard when the average American home was 1,400 square feet. And by the 195o’s standard of 983 square feet, my house is positively roomy. However, today, the average American house footprint stands at 2,598 square feet.  That said, there is a tiny house movement on and that’s a good thing for the environment.



Having lived in larger houses, I can honestly say I love this smaller home.  The costs for energy, upkeep, homeowner’s insurance, and property taxes are considerably less. The need for interior furnishings shrinks, too.



The downside is there is less space for storage. We have had to maximize our options. I keep bees and beekeeper supplies like honey jars and lids as well as my cases of jam jars and lids and the final, finished products have to be stored somewhere. And then there are my cookbooks (I’ve cut the collection from over a hundred to a quarter of that).



Built-in bookshelves in the kitchen will accommodate part of my cookbook collection

Built-in bookshelves in the kitchen will accommodate part of my cookbook collection




My designer/architect husband Carlos Carvajal came to my rescue by carving out some space for bookcase in the wall between the kitchen and the bar area.



He also took space from the kitchen to create a laundry area with washer and dryer and hid them behind bi-fold doors.



The bar area has a bank of lower cabinets that can hold glassware, appetizer dishes, and serving platters. He re-created a new cabinet unit from a bank of old upper kitchen cabinets, mounting them on the wall above the granite counter-top with an inset sink.



A narrow moveable butcher block cart on wheels with a couple of shelves could give me a little extra storage, if we could find one that would fit in the limited space near the oven.



I think we’ve maximized our storage options in the kitchen and created a highly functional space so maybe I can now abandon that lament.







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Urban Farms Make Sense for Lots of Reasons

Author: Meera, January 9, 2015
A squash plant will grow well in small gardens up a teepee of three poles or on a fence

Squash, corn, and beans (the “Three Sisters”) grow well together in an urban garden



Reduce city blight. Give city residents the opportunity to farm. Grow food for low-rent residents. Eliminate illegal dumping. Create public gardens on private land until the owner decides on another use. Lower property taxes for land owners. Improve the local environment. These are just a few reasons urban farms make a lot of sense and should be promoted.



As it turns out, the city of San Francisco is leading the way. The city has a new law offering financial incentives in the form of reduced property taxes for owners of empty lots who permit agricultural use of their land for at least five years or more.



Part of the statewide Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, the law encourages potential urban farmers to convert weedy, empty lots or those covered in trash into gardens. These urban farmers necessarily would have to put in resources such as labor and money but the law ensures they cannot be forced out of their contracts, thus losing their investment.



The law is the brainchild of sustainable land-use advocates and state Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. Cities must first pass the necessary local ordinance and San Francisco has already done that.




A single frame of wax and residual honey is hung in a tree so as not to attract ants

Frame of honey (after the honey has been harvested) hangs in a tree to be cleaned by the bees



Urban farmers must comply with local ordinances with regard to keeping bees and farm animals. But the idea of urban gardens reducing blight (which may also be prone to illegal dumping) has wide appeal for cities eager to stabilize property values and also provide more green spaces.



While other cities in California explore the environmental benefits of urban farms (including Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and San San Jose), San Francisco leads the way.



A city lot must meet certain qualifications: it has to be at least one-tenth of an acre. Additionally, there must be no permanent buildings on the lot. Qualified lots are re-assessed with a significantly lower tax bill for its owner.The new tax assessment is based on the average rate of irrigated farmland.



The idea of more urban farms means a win for the city, local residents, the land owners, and the environment.




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How My Real Life Informs My Art

Author: Meera, November 29, 2014

Every story needs a setting, a world in which something happens. For my cozy mysteries, I didn’t set out to create a new world for my coterie of characters, I just appropriated details of the life I am living as a farmette dweller.




Spring beekeeping involves rescuing swarms

Spring beekeeping involves rescuing swarms, which can be quite dramatic



Daily chores on our Henny Penny Farmette provide plenty of fodder for my fictional stories. Our daily activities include chicken care, garden and orchard work, beekeeping, cooking and preservation of vegetables and fruits, renovating the antiquated farm house, fixing sheds, and building fences and retaining walls.



Stories need a sense of verisimilitude for readers to suspend disbelief and join the fictional journey. Drawing upon my real-life experiences, I can easily integrate my adventures in my books. And not only my activities, but also experiences of my architect husband who is ever-occupied with making our old house more liveable.




Henny Penny Farmette house in 1953

In this 1953 photo, our little house sat in a great, big field with not much around it; the dwelling faced Mount Diablo (still does) and the Delta and great central valley lie to the northeast



The tax assessor told me that our dwelling might have been a mining shack in the late 1940s (we live near Mt. Diablo and Lime Ridge where mining and rock quarrying were once important industries). We’ve also been told that our little house might have later served as a farm home (we live less than two miles from designated agricultural farmland). The structure desperately needed updating when we found it almost five years ago. But as settings go, the house and farmette work great.




Creating a pattern for insertion

Creating a pattern for the kitchen counter back splash



We have since used recycled and reclaimed materials, sale items at big box DIY stores, and gifts (like lumber, stone, and windows/doors) from friends who do demolition on estates. We’ve visited companies that sell granite and asked for permission to take broken stone from their dumpsters. Thus, we’ve created a lovely bathroom floor with found materials that we’ve cut and sanded.




Light from a crystal chandelieradds drama to such a small space

Light from a crystal chandelier dances off the new granite counter, but the floors were not yet installed when this photo was taken



Of course, the exact details of our daily activities may not make their way into my stories, but versions of them sometimes do. At the very least, such activities inform my storytelling. I daresay the chickens and bees serve important roles in my mysteries. And each new day brings new adventures, from foxes showing up to skunks and raccoons raiding our fruit and nut trees.



Lately, a new chicken showed up on our property (a heritage chicken that had the ability to fly over my neighbor’s fence). She’s been staying here ever since. Wild turkeys often take a path through the property and once or twice a gorgeous stallion named Romeo and its owner ride by and say hello. Such events can add textural details to the setting of a story.



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Farmette Projects Don’t Stop, Even with the Rain

Author: Meera, November 22, 2014
storm clouds usher in the third in a series of rainstorms

Dark clouds usher in a rainstorm




The rains have arrived in the Bay Area . . . finally. Although my hubby and I are thankful for the wet stuff, we weren’t quite ready.



Our sheds have leaky roofs. I also need to install a different kind of gate on my chicken run; one that won’t swell with moisture and get stuck so that I can’t open it. I close the gate at night against predators, but the chickens free range in the yard during the day.



Our supply of building materials is dwindling as we are completing some projects. Much of the stone and retaining wall materials, torn out from estates that are being re-landscaped, were donated to us. Carlos and I were only too glad to integrate them into our own landscape. We work on it little by little.




Apricot-colored flagstones reduce the mud tracked into the house

Rain helps along the roses; the flagstone walkway reduces the amount of mud tracked into the house




With mud everywhere, I probably appreciate more than anyone having the flagstone  leading to the front door, however, we still need to fill the spaces between the flagstone with gravel.



We’ve built fences and put up the frame for an entrance trellis where the gate will go in. We also have constructed a porch trellis that I will grow wisteria over, but we have to install the porch floor first. We’re using plywood in the meantime.



The long half-circle driveway is packed dirt, although we have shoveled in gravel where my husband parks his truck. Now that the rains have arrived, the driveway is pretty muddy. We need to figure out whether we’ll put in gravel for entire length of the driveway (there’s some there now) or lay asphalt or stone.



So while it rains, I think about our master plan for the farmette. We’ve come a long way . . . but there’s still a huge distance to go and some projects can’t wait for spring like those leaky shed roofs.




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I haven’t had to call on my first-aid skills in a while, but today I lost control of a tree trunk round (that must have weighed close to a hundred pounds). It broke the skin in several places, bruised the flesh, and caused swelling within minutes.



Silly me--if I'd worn boots, I probably wouldn't have the cuts on my lower leg

Silly me–if I’d worn boots instead of loafers, my leg would have been protected against cuts and bruises




Luckily, I didn’t break my ankle. This is my comeuppance, I suppose, for going against my architect husband’s admonition not to mess with those rounds regardless of how badly I wanted to keep work moving forward on the farmette landscaping at the front of our house.




These babies run 2.5 to 3 feet wide; they kept our feet out of water during the rainy season the first year we came but it's been drought ever since

Two- to three-feet wide, these babies are no longer needed in the landscape and can trigger termite infestation when they lie against the soil




The way I see it, it’s only by us tackling something every day that we will ever be able to complete the restoration that this old place needs. I believe it’s been without tender loving care for at least a generation.




Last week, my husband brought in a bobcat and within a few hours had hauled away stone, dirt, and dead stumps. We can now lay paving stones to create a sitting area for outdoor entertaining. The floor he laid at my daughter’s house is pretty and functional. She tells me they love the area and so do their children and friends.




This patio floor that my husband recently laid required several stone shapes and two colors--gray and terra cotta

This patio floor that my husband recently laid required several stone shapes and two colors–gray and terra cotta




Out front, we’ve transferred the irises to a raised bed, but the tree that was severely diseased, as well as rocks and wooden stumps, are gone now.




With the tree and irises gone, this area is now flat

Flat and ready for sand and a stone floor, this area won’t have to be watered



My husband tells me we’re going to get some help with the landscaping work at the front of our property this week. So, in case he warms to the idea of letting me participate, too, I’ll get out my boots, bandana, and straw hat.



You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl. What can I say . . . I just love digging in the dirt even when it involves the personal risk of bumps and scrapes–isn’t that expected when doing renovation?


*Update on the foot–checked by a doctor and no break. I’ll be drop kicking turnips in no time!








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My daughter knew my husband Carlos had an opening in his schedule and wanted him to create a carefree stone floor for her backyard. She wasn’t interested in grass or plants, given the California drought, and her husband came up with a design. Easy.



Sand is placed over gravel and raked before the stone is set and leveled

Sand is placed over gravel and raked before the stone is set in place, hammered down, and leveled



But as it turns out, the design was fairly complicated. It consisted of a cross with a circular medallion. The stones were four different sizes and two different colors. Maybe not so easy.




Getting the medallion correctly positioned followed after a few rows of stone were laid

Green string, tightly strung provides a guide for correctly positioning the stones in the circle and in straight lines




Carlos, nevertheless, rose to the occasion and with a buddy got to work. My daughter swore that all the sand and rock Carlos would need were already there from the previous patio, but that turned out not to be the case.




the floor pattern jumps out at you when you spray it with water

The floor pattern emerges more clearly when you spray it with water



So imagine Carlos’s surprise when he realized he would have to pull out the dirt, level the ground, and do all that prep work before he could start laying stone.



Everyone put their stress aside, ordered sand and gravel, assemble the tools like the rake, mallet, and wheelbarrow, and enlisted one of our neighbors for additional help.




It took more than week. But the work is almost finished. My daughter loves the patio and she’s already planning a late summer party to show it off.



Carlos is thinking maybe we could use a floor like that on our farmette. With all the work we do, it’s nice to have a flat floor with a bench and table to sit a spell and catch your breath.





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