Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “diy”

Freeway Free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

20180718_105805webFrom Caernarfon Castle we moved inland to Conwy, a walled market town with some beautifully preserved Elizabethan homes. I could imagine the burgher who lived in Plas Mawr inviting other village citizens to dine, quaffing local ale and bemoaning the unreasonable demands of the lord of the adjacent castle. Meanwhile, the servants in the adjacent kitchen would be skinning the local game and trying to keep drops of sweat from dropping into the soup.

Moving forward several centuries, we stopped at Betws-y-Coed. The ultra-quaint railway station with its ivy covered veranda spoke of Victorian solidity and permanence.




But the twin ecological monuments on the veranda spoke to very different 21st century concerns.


Our next stop brought the world of the castle firmly into the 21st century also, as we stopped at Gwydir Castle, a Tudor-era manor whose young owners have taken it from being an abandoned white elephant to being a reasonably profitable and comfortable bed and breakfast.

The 500 year old cedars have been saved, the ghosts (both human and animal) have been exorcised), the plumbing, including the fountains, has been restored, decorations plundered by William Randolph Hearst and others have been (at least partially) restored, and there are peacocks begging for crumbs when tea is served in the garden.  (If you want to know more about the restoration, Judy Corbett has written a charming book about the process, Castles in the Air. You will never be able to hear or see the term “fixer-upper” again without a smile.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)


After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!



21st Century girl meets 19th Century technology

(published in Los Altos Town Crier Aug 10, 2012)

I have traditionally hosted my grand daughter for a week during the summer.  At thirteen she has grown into quite the young lady.  I tried to do some make-believe like we use to do with the stuffed animals in her room and she reproved me with “I’m not a little girl anymore, Grandma!”  I knew this was true when I went up to check on her comfort and saw she was no longer sleeping with her Panda Bear, but instead with her Samsung Galaxy S3. So 21st century!

Still, when I suggested a sewing project she was all enthusiasm.  I had a few dress patterns left over from my crafty days, and she picked a nice simple wrap-sundress (Jiffy!  One piece! Lots of straight seams! ) We had a good time at Joann’s Fabric and Crafts picking out the fabric – she finally settled on a red gingham check with a contrasting red polka-dot calico.  The gingham check turned out to be very helpful as it provided lots of straight lines to sew along.

We pinned carefully and she was in charge of the cutting, making sure that all the “Cut on line of fabric” lined up perfectly with the gingham check.  She had a little difficulty at first with the sewing machine. (“It won’t go!  And then it goes too fast! It’s too loud!  I can’t do it!”)  There was a minor meltdown on the couch.

That night an invitation arrived – instead of staying with us through Saturday morning, she could go up on Friday to visit her uncle and aunt in San Francisco for an overnight.  Cool!  But we would have that much less time to finish the dress.  She looked at me, squared her jaw,  and said “So, no more freaking out?”

I nodded.


The next day she screwed up her courage, sat down at the machine, and just did it.  From then on, anything I showed her (fastening an end seam with a back stitch, ironing the ties, turning a corner, doing a hem, hand-sewing a facing) she observed, absorbed, and did.

Maybe it was lucky that I was the one to make the stupid mistakes (cutting along a fold that wasn’t supposed to be two pieces, sewing a pocket one check higher than its mate) and she was the one to correct them.  Certainly it was wonderful that when she wore the dress for the first time to the camp she was attending during her stay, her new friend at camp said “That’s a really cute dress!” and she was able to say “Thank you. I made it myself – with a little help from my Grandma.” So 19thcentury!

It was a great week for both of us.  My granddaughter cleaned up my smart phone and showed me some new tricks I could do with it.  She got us to Skype.  We ate her favorite food, took her to see Brave on the big screen, enjoyed the things she did in camp, and watched our favorite old movies on the small screen.  (So 20th century!)

But the best was The Dress.  19th century met 21st century, and everybody won.

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