2014 in Review: Home Projects

Owning a home is hard. I think too many people view owning a home as this magical, fairytale experience that is heartwarming and goal-worthy. And while it can be those things, it’s also a lot of hard work and stress, unless you’re a billionaire with employees who do everything for you.

Too often, I find myself overwhelmed by thinking up projects to do. One of the first and best pieces of advice I received (from a random stranger on the Internet, no less) was “write everything down.” It seems obvious and simple, but I hadn’t taken the time to do it. With Kevin’s help, I compiled a list of home-improvement goals—a combination of small projects that we can easily accomplish and projects that are more expensive and would require a contractor. Once we complete a project, we move it to a “completed” list. I can’t recommend this enough. I’m always so quick to feel deflated because there is so much I want to do and I feel like I’ve done nothing, but then I look at my list and remember that we have, indeed, done a lot this year.

Plus, home improvement is a function of time, money, and ability. If you’re lazy, miserly, and only slightly skilled, as we are, projects are seldom and move at a snail’s pace.

Below is a gallery of most of our completed projects from this year.

The Raised Garden Beds

Raised garden beds.

Simply put, I was tired of the weed-ridden, dog-trampled, always-in-the-way garden Kevin had planted when we first moved in. We both liked the look and idea of raised garden beds, but they can be very pricey if you buy them in the store. For example, we saw kits at Costco and Sam’s Club, and both were selling them for $80+ (and that’s BEFORE the cost of filling these deep beds with dirt!). We, of course, decided to build them ourselves, which required us to buy the circular saw that Kevin had been longing for. All of the credit for this project goes to Kevin. He was the one who creatively though to use treated fence posts as the siding, instead of the more expensive treated 2x4s. We used cardboard as the bottom (not that you need a bottom, but this helps keep weeds from infiltrating the beds), and we used the clearance wood (i.e., the wood that came in dented and chipped) as the stakes for our climbing plants. I thought the beds turned out beautifully, and we plan on building more in the spring for our re-vamped herb garden.

The Rain Barrel

Our water-diverting rain barrel.

Kevin and I had been wanting a rain barrel for a long, long time but didn’t want to spend the $90+ they can cost. At one point, we purchased a huge plastic drum (similar to the ones Walter White acidified dead bodies in in “Breaking Bad”) on Craigslist, thinking we could make our own. We had every intention of doing so; we even purchased the hardware from Home Depot (HD)! But a few weeks later, HD had a sale on all of their overpriced rain barrels, rendering them much more affordable, so we caved and bought one. I spent an hour putting it together, with Kevin helping when it came time to drill the nozzle holes and connect it to our gutter downspout. The hose connection is at the very bottom of the barrel, so to ensure proper water flow and elevation if we ever attach a hose, we placed the rain barrel on two concrete blocks. The cool things about this rain barrel are A) I can plant flowers on top (we chose purslane because it is perennial and does well in pots), and B) it features a water diverter, so when the rain barrel fills up, the diverter then sends water down the downspout instead of into the barrel. Cool!

The Brick Patio

Amateur brick patio.

When we moved in, the area behind our screened porch was mostly dirt/mud mixed with a tree stump and some gross weeds. I had never seen a porch lead to just dirt, and I didn’t like it. Sometimes a girl just wants to stand outside without getting her feet muddy. At some point, there had a been an extensive brick pathway all over the yard, bordered on both sides by railroad ties. (We discovered this as Kevin was digging his first garden.) Over the years, the path had been overtaken by weeds and grass. It would have been much too much work to try to uncover the entire path; we had no idea how large it was, but we knew it traversed at least half of our back yard. Plus, most of the railroad ties we unearthed were rotten. Instead, I dug up hundreds of the bricks and reworked them into a very amateur brick patio leading from the porch. It took two tries, and it’s still uneven, but I’m not going to redo it again—slinging bricks around is backbreaking, perhaps some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. My beginner patio serves its purpose, so I’m satisfied…for now.

The Composter

Composting is a great way to reuse your food scraps to create fertilizer for your garden. Like rain barrels, real composters are very expensive. We had seen one we really liked at Sam’s Club, but it was $80 and, to us, not worth the cost. To try to make a cheap version, Kevin purchased a 30-gallon, plastic, outdoor trash can from HD, drilled some holes in the side (for air circulation), and added earthworms (to break down the food). To mix the compost (which has to be done to stir in new items and circulate nutrients), he would either use a shovel or put the top on, turn it on its side, and roll it around a few times. It was arduous and messy but good enough.

Then, on a serendipitous expedition to the dark corners of our Sam’s Club, I happened upon the clearance-items rack. Lo and behold, there was a composter, on sale for $30!!! I couldn’t believe it. According to the label, there was nothing wrong with it; it just happened to be the last one they couldn’t sell. Ecstatic, I hurled it into my cart and ran off to show Kevin. With the $10-off coupon I was toting, we got that beautiful space pod for only $20! Though not so fun to put together, it is so much easier to fill and flip than our old garbage can. Needless to say, we now check the clearance rack on every visit to Sam’s Club.

Miscellaneous Projects

This includes a few of our smaller projects. Special thanks to Mr. Hublou for finding, giving, delivering, and installing our sort-of-new, high-efficiency washer and dryer!

Projects for Which I Have No Pictures

Some things we just didn’t photograph…our bad. Here’s a list of those projects.

  • Scraped the master bathroom ceiling to remove moisture bubbles that were forming when hot water was used. Refinished and repainted entire ceiling with moisture-resistant ceiling paint. (This project I did all by myself because Kevin thought it was pointless and refused to help. In the end, he admitted that I did a great job.)
  • GFCI-protected our kitchen and bathroom outlets, and added an outlet to the master bathroom. (Who builds a bathroom with no outlet!?!) These projects were done by my favorite master electrician, my dad!
  • Replaced the overhead light fixtures on the front porch.
  • Purchased a carpet cleaner and cleaned the crap out of our carpets.
  • Built a shelving unit to serve as a pantry (and not as pantry-moth breeding ground!), since our house does not have one.
  • Landscaping…lots and lots of landscaping.

Phew. That’s a lot. Here’s hoping that 2015 finds us just as productive and hardworking!

Pantry Moth-strosity

It’s Tuesday, 8:08 AM. I open Gmail on my computer, and a new chat from Kevin pops up: “CARLY! I found a MOTH in my teabag!”

Instantly, my heart sinks.

Sometime around January 2013, when we lived in our little apartment in Tampa, we started noticing a moth here and a moth there. I thought, “How cute. Baby moths! The best kind of bugs to have! They are going to eat all the other bugs that we don’t want around!” We assumed that a few little friendly companions had moved in, and we felt led to do nothing about it.

And then the moths started having babies, and the babies had babies, and soon we were sharing our apartment with a civilization of moths.

We searched the Target “Home” aisle for a solution. I had heard of mothballs, but I wasn’t really sure what they were. Based on the information I read on the side of the mothball products, I realized this wasn’t the answer to our problem. I asked my mom, but she had never heard of a problem like ours.

Then I asked Kevin’s mom.

“Oh! You have pantry moths! They feed off your grains!”

Suddenly, the veil was lifted, and I realized that what I had thought were beautiful, winged cohabitants were actually disgusting, tiny pests. We didn’t have a few little friends; we had an infestation!

Yes, pantry moths—the most putrid thing that can happen to your food-storage area. They crawl through infinitesimal openings in your food bags and feed off your food. They can get in your house a number of ways, but many times they enter via something you purchased at the store, which is an even more despicable thought. Then, they lay eggs either in your food or in your food’s container. Our pantry moths seemed to especially favor the tiny space on the bottom of tin cans where the lid meets the side. Next—worst of all—comes the cocoon/worm phase. The blog No Ordinary Homestead describes the pantry-moth life cycle best:

“You may first notice the little brownish moths that flit around your kitchen. They will lay somewhere between 60 and 300 eggs which will hatch 2-14 days later. The mommy moth […] will usually lay these close to a food source. Then, once they hatch, they don’t have very far to travel before they start to feast. The larvae/worms look a bit like small caterpillars are a whitish-yellowish color with little black heads and about 2/3-inch (1 cm) long. They will burrow into anything and everything they can find, continuing to eat for 2 – 41 weeks, depending on the temperatures. […] And once they are finally full and have left behind their tell-tale webs, they will find [sic] crawl off somewhere looking for a cozy place to nest and spin a cocoon. This will often be crevices in your kitchen you don’t normally see or maybe even where the ceiling meets the wall. […] We promptly killed them and hoped not to find anymore. But there were more…there always are.”

But why me!? I had never heard of nor experienced this problem in any other place I had lived. And it’s not like I was suddenly very bad at closing my open food containers. I felt violated, like my apartment and the moths had teamed up to torment me in my own dwelling. I hypothesized that the moths were attracted to Tampa’s warmer climate; it seemed to be the only major difference between Tampa and the other Florida cities where I had lived.

The Pantry Pest Trap: Our best friend against our worst enemies.

After hearing the verdict from Kevin’s mom, we headed back to our apartment, fearing what we knew we had to do next. We searched every grain-type food we had—quinoa, cereal, rice, bread—and found moths, eggs, cocoons, and worms in all of it. We promptly threw away everything grain-related, wasting a lot of food and money in the process. Kevin’s mom—who, I learned, has a lot of experience with pantry moths—bought us several Pantry Pest Traps, which we installed immediately. The traps tricked several moths into killing themselves, but we still saw moths fluttering around. We brushed it off, thinking it would just take time for them to die off or find their next family to haunt.

A moth month later, we moved back to Gainesville. “Free at last!” I thought. No longer would pantry moths infest my house and dreams. I would finally feel comfortable in my living space.

After the move, I traveled back to Tampa to tackle the task of cleaning our old apartment—alone. I spent three evenings (eight hours total) cleaning that apartment (and got most of my deposit back!!), but every day I returned, I found more moths. I sprayed so much bug-killer into the pantry that I’m afraid for whomever puts their food into it next. And yet every day, I found another worm, cocoon, or moth flittering around inside it. I even found a few moths flapping around the bedroom closets. Eventually, they were all dead, their bodies dragged from my pantry by a mix of chemicals, paper towels, and pre-menstrual feminine rage. I won.

Or so I thought.

Dead moths = happy Carly.

We were excited for the fresh start in our new pantry in Gainesville. We set up a moth trap immediately, and we also invested in some fly tape to hang in the pantry doorway, just to catch any moth or fly that might outwit the moth trap. We sprayed every shelf of the pantry with white vinegar and sprinkled bay leaves everywhere. (Kevin had read that these were other ways to keep unwanted moths out of our pantry.) As if that weren’t enough, we invested in airtight storage containers from IKEA to house multi-use, boxed items like cereal, crackers, quinoa, and pancake mix.

As we put away food into our new pantry, something on the bottom of a can caught my eye—a moth nest! I couldn’t believe it. Those little buggers had caught a free ride on our non-grain food, determined to torment us for all eternity. Distressed, we began checking everything—every inch, inside and out, of every can, box, bag, packet, jar, etc. They were in the oatmeal packets, the popcorn packets, the tomato soup cans, the macaroni and cheese boxes, the folds of the cookie packaging, the inside of the cereal boxes—the list goes on. We threw away any opened, perishable food item that had a moth in/on it, and washed the outsides of unopened cans, jars, and bottles with vinegar. By the end of this second attack, we had thrown away almost all of our food.

After that night, I never saw a cocoon or a worm again. Our moth and fly traps caught the occasional moth that had slipped through the cracks of our hunt (which is a scary thought, but I let it go), and we could finally sleep (and eat!) peacefully, though it took a while to stop analyzing every corner of my food and containers each time I used them.

Moth trap in our new pantry.

When we moved into our current house, we followed the same new-pantry-prep procedure, minus the bay leaves (it’s just kind of messy).

This past Sunday, over our weekly pancake breakfast, Kevin opened a brand-new, sealed bottle of agave nectar. He flipped open the top and gasped: there, inside the cap, were two moth cocoons. Naturally, I freaked out, leaving my uneaten pancakes on the table (and at the mercy of Peanut and Dobby) to rush to the pantry and frantically search all of the syrup and ketchup caps.

Luckily, I found nothing; apparently we had purchased the agave nectar just before leaving Tampa, so it was completely plausible that these moths were leftovers from the original infestation.

And then Tuesday, 8:08 AM comes. Sitting at work, I feel myself begin to panic. Kevin had taken a teabag with him to work and discovered a dead cocoon, and there were nine hours between me and getting home to tear through our tea supply.

Later that evening, when we were both home (because I was not going to do it alone), we pulled down all of our tea, which we keep in a cabinet in the kitchen rather than the pantry. We had the same arrangement in our Tampa and Gainesville apartments too, which explains why a moth might have escaped the Great Pantry Purge of 2013: we never checked the tea supply! Luckily, we found no moths. Perhaps it was a fluke or Kevin’s failing eyes that caused the uproar. Regardless, we did toss the box of tea from which Kevin grabbed the questionable bag.

I feel fairly certain that we have escaped the infestation for now, though we do find the occasional dead moth in our current trap.

But we may never stop looking over our shoulders or straining to hear for a light fluttering of wings flapping in the pantry….