My Christmas Village – I know you were worried

Remember last year when I wrote about acquiring pieces of the Precious Moments “Sugar Town” Christmas Village – almost against my own will? It started by getting into a huff about being out-bid on Ebay, and escalated from there. I ended up with 12 total pieces, and finally stopped after finding a great bargain on the lighted chapel figure. Here’s the little scene I created this past Christmas with the pieces I had collected:

 

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Yes, I ended up liking these pieces more than I thought I would… they made a sweet addition to Grandma’s Table for Christmas.

 

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I’m happily rejoining one of my favorite link-up parties, Vintage Thingie Thursday hosted by ColoradoLady – these pieces are, unbelievably, 20 years old already (though they are new to me)!

Hope you have had a lovely week!

More soon,

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Baked French Toast

Do you know what the only thing is that I dislike about French Toast? It’s the fact that I, as the cook, am still dipping bread slices and cooking them up while the rest of the family is enjoying their meal. Seems like a small thing, I know – but it has driven me nuts for years. YEARS, people!!

Same with pancakes – “What do you mean, you guys are done already? I’m just sitting down with my plate!”

And that’s where baked French toast comes in! This stuff is seriously wonderful and I found it… where else – on Pinterest! The original pin came from Rach’s Blog. She shared the recipe, plus suggestions for alterations, and her readers have commented in droves over the past few years with their tips, successes and challenges. For my first attempt, I followed Rach’s original directions except that I left the crusts on and I did cover the dish with foil for the first 25 minutes or so of baking.

I decided to make this for New Year’s Day brunch for our small family, so, because it had to refrigerate overnight before baking, I assembled it on New Year’s Eve. It turned out great! I didn’t take step-by-step photos, but this picture is how it looked after baking. (You can’t see all the goodness in the middle and bottom of the pan – it’s perfectly coated with egg mixture and there’s a layer of butter and brown sugar on the bottom.)

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And here’s the recipe, using the steps I used.

Baked French Toast

Ingredients
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 loaf Texas toast (uses 12 slices)
4 eggs
1 – 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar for sprinkling, if desired

Evening before serving:

1. Melt butter in microwave.
2. Mix brown sugar into melted butter.
3. Pour butter/sugar mix into bottom of pan and spread around to evenly coat the bottom of the pan.
4. Beat eggs, milk, & vanilla
5. Arrange a single layer of Texas Toast in the pan
6. Spoon and spread half of the egg mixture on the first bread layer
7. Add 2nd layer of Texas Toast
8. Spoon on and spread remaining egg mixture
9. Cover & chill in fridge overnight

On serving day:

1. Sprinkle cinnamon on top layer of bread.
2. Bake, covered, at 350 for 25 minutes. Remove cover and bake 20 minutes more.
3. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.
4. Serve warm with butter and maple syrup

 

Over on Rach’s blog, some readers’ dishes came out too soggy in the middle. I don’t know why, or how you would fix it if it happens… I just know that in the dish I prepared, the texture ranged from crunchy/toasty on top to soft and moist in the middle, to a bit gooey near the bottom – something for everyone!

Hope you get a chance to make this. If you do, report back here on the results!

More soon,

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My first-ever (annual?) cookie swap!

I mentioned in my holiday wrap-up that I hosted my first-ever cookie exchange party on December 8. Have you ever attended – or hosted – one of these? I hadn’t attended one for many years – and had never hosted one before. I will just say, it was about as stress-free (for me) as I could possibly make it, and that was my goal – I didn’t want to create a monster! Everyone had a great time, including myself.

Generally, a cookie swap party is where guests bring a TON of their favorite homemade cookie to share, and everyone goes around the table collecting up massive amounts of all the cookies to take home and/or give as gifts. This requires guests to bring anywhere from six to nine dozen cookies apiece – at least, that’s what I’ve read. I wasn’t really comfortable asking guests to make nine dozen cookies – it just seemed like a huge time commitment, in addition to attending the party, at a very busy time of year. So, my party was more of a cookie sampling recipe exchange than an actual cookie swap. Although as it turned out, there were plenty of cookies for each guest to take home a plate full!

Here’s me (second from left) and my guests – Shirley, Val, Molly, Penney & Vicki:

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I chose a Sunday early in December for my party – I wanted everyone to have time to make the cookies they’d sampled, in their own holiday baking. Each guest was asked to bring 3 dozen cookies, homemade and “holiday special,” along with 12 copies of their recipe to share. I also asked each guest to be sure to RSVP by a certain date so I could plan for the right numbers.

As they arrived we set their cookies on pretty plates and platters on the cookie table. As a kick-off to the party, we played a memory game where each guest introduced herself and talked about the cookies she brought – then guests had to match up each person with their cookies on a scorecard. Following this game, we sampled all the cookies and chatted about the merits and challenges of each one – we had Oreo Balls (aka “Chocolate Salty Balls,” Coffee Cookies, Alfajores, Easy Peanut Butter cookies, Gum Drop cookies, and Pretzel Turtles.

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We also played my own original game, “Christmas Movie Mix-Up.” For this game I wrote one-sentence summaries of the plots of 8 Christmas Movies, and they had to guess the movie name based on the plot summary.

The final game was “Who’s Going to Make It Up the Street in the Snow,” because, being Iowa in December, it had started snowing early in the morning! Fortunately this didn’t keep anyone from attending, but by the time the party ended we had a couple inches of it to contend with. Fortunately everyone won this game and made it home safely.

 

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In all the day ended up full of fun, friends, and winter beauty. I’m SO glad I did it, and will definitely be hosting another cookie party in 2014!

More soon,

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Holiday wrap-up for 2013

Since I didn’t blog throughout the holidays (or even… for much of the year)… I thought I would throw together a little holiday wrap-up just to share the highlights of my holiday season. I have SO enjoyed reacquainting myself with some favorite blogs, seeing what you all did/decorated/ate for Christmas and New Year’s! I hope to be a little more productive in 2014 as far as blogging here and as always I thank you for reading and commenting!

Thanksgiving was lovely as always – we went to my sister-in-law’s home not too far away and enjoyed my husband’s large family. It’s always so different from what I remember as a kid – our family was small, with 9 people at the most, and although we were a friendly, animated bunch there was just two distinct age groups: adults, and children. With Steve’s family, we have adults, young adults, teen-agers, and young children so it is a larger, noisier, and more diverse group. Make no mistake, I love spending time with his family! We had just a skiff of snow on the ground, and it was VERY cold!

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Thanksgiving weekend, I put up our Christmas decorations and did the final prep work on my first-ever cookie exchange party on December 8th! I absolutely LOVED doing this and will share full details in a separate post, but I will say I’m definitely doing it again next year! For as much work as went into it, it was a lot of fun AND we got about six inches of snow that day – which thankfully did not deter my intrepid guests! Here’s a sneak-peek at our cookie table!

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One of the neat things about this holiday season was that I had plenty of time off around each holiday. I have had a very busy and stressful year at work, and all this family-and-home-time was just what I was needing. I finished up working on Friday the 20th, then had five days off to enjoy my family and final preparations for Christmas. I actually enjoyed gift shopping this year, probably because I had started early and had very little left to do by the time I had all that time off.

On Christmas Eve we attended the late Mass at St. Ambrose Cathedral in downtown Des Moines – this is a beautiful Catholic church with massive arched ceilings and ornate decor… the sparkling trees and red poinsettias up at the front were elegant, and the joyful Christmas music echos so beautifully here it literally makes me weep. I snapped a couple of photos during the musical prelude, when the full crowd had not yet arrived and the service had not yet started.

 

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Our Christmas Day was beautiful and quiet – we had fresh snow over the top of what we had received earlier in the month, so this was the view of our sideyard out in the driveway on Christmas morning:

 

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We each enjoyed several gifts under the tree – my two favorites were the Kindle Fire HD e-reader I received from my husband and this beautiful Royal Albert Old Country Roses ornament that my daughter chose for me:

 

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Speaking of Old Country Roses, I used my favorite-pattern-of-all-time again for Christmas dinner (just like last year) only this time I used the beautiful red placemats that my daughter gave me last year. The tablescape was simple, but I did have a little fun with the napkins by using a Christmas tree fold I saw over at Susan’s lovely-as-always blog, Between Naps on the Porch. I didn’t take enough pictures to do a full “tablescape” post, but here’s a sample place-setting. Each place included a sequined red placemat, Old Country Roses dinner plate, gold-rimmed white bread plate, my vintage Oneida “Chandelier” stainless flatware, and new-to-me-this-year glassware: Whitehall “Cubist” by Indiana Glass.

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I worked the Thursday and Friday after Christmas, then had another five days off through New Year’s Day. In that time we enjoyed “little Christmases” with my step-daughter and her family (husband and 3 teen-age step-grandsons!) and later, with my brother and his family (wife and young son).  New Year’s Eve was very quiet, again spent with just my little 3-person family, and on New Year’s Day we enjoyed Baked French Toast for brunch – a recipe I discovered on Pinterest. It was absolutely delicious! (I’ll share the recipe in a separate post!)

frenchtoast

 

As I write this, I’ve got pot roast simmering on the stove for New Year’s Day dinner, then it’s back to work Thursday and Friday… then 2 more days off… then back to full work weeks.

I am SO glad to have had all the time off – I feel ready to face the new year, and hope you do too!

More soon,

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Just in time for Fall

Here’s one of my favorite recent thrifty treasures: a beautiful Fall-hued print by Iowa artist Kemlyn Tan Bappe. I love everything about this 12 x 18 print, from the subject matter to the color palette to the Batik look.

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Even neater is that the original art piece from which the print was made is a Batik print created by Ms. Bappe through her participation in Very Special Arts Iowa (VSA Iowa), a state organization on arts and disability.

This paper print came ready to frame, backed on cardboard and wrapped in plastic with a VSA informational leaflet stating that “Kemlyn is a contemporary Asian Artist who creates paper and batik and fiber art… (and)… has been creating art for 27 years. Kemlyn lives and creates with Dyslexia.”

The Iowa Arts Council also shares this information:

Kemlyn Tan Bappe is a contemporary Peranakan artist from Singapore. She is Nonya, a woman of Peranakan descent. The Peranakan are a colorful, ornate culture that developed in the 15th & 16th century when immigrant Chinese inter-married non-Muslim Malay in Southeast Asia. The Peranakan have their unique cuisine, dance, dialect and a distinctive flair for color and ornate patterns in their art forms.

Tan Bappe’s work can be found in collections internationally. She lives and works in Mount Pleasant, Iowa with her husband and three children. She is a member of Metro Arts Alliance. She is a teaching artist with the Iowa Arts Council Teaching Artist Roster, World of Difference, VSA arts of Iowa and is the recipient of 2009/10 VSA National Teaching Artist Fellowship.

I’m on the hunt now for an appropriate frame; this print was part of a recent “haul” of several wonderful bargains, including a couple of stylin’ jackets for my daughter, a comfy pair of slip-on shoes, some sweet floral wall decor, and a pretty porcelain lidded box.

More soon!

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Internet magic in the garden

One of the reasons I love the Internet is that it’s like a big encyclopedia, only easier to search! A few weeks ago, when I began assembling my hosta garden, I discovered a little patch of “something” that I couldn’t identify. (Actually I have several of those, but this one now moves to the “identified” column!) It had long, narrow dark green leaves and looked like a small clump of very lush grass or possibly wild garlic. I decided to dig it up, and quickly determined it was NOT grass because the cluster was comprised of many very small bulbs. The bulbs and foliage did not have the distinct odor of wild garlic, so I became convinced it was a flower, and decided to plant it loosely in one of my patio pots for safekeeping until I could look it up. I’ve mostly ignored it for two weeks… until yesterday, when I happened to notice that it was blooming! Here it is:

starofbethlehem

 

Still having no idea what it was, I searched “white flower star shape” in Google Images. The very first photo in the search results looked exactly like my little clump, and it was linked to a “please help me ID this plant” thread in the Gardenweb forums online. Thanks to this, and a link to a very informative PDF file from Utah State University Extension (which described my plant right down to the comparison to wild garlic), I was able to identify the plant as “Star of Bethlehem.” This prolific plant is a member of the lily family that is actually considered somewhat invasive (and potentially toxic).

Faults aside, I intend to find a spot for it. It has come up every year since we’ve lived here, but has never bloomed until being tossed rather carelessly into the patio pot so it has never been a problem!

Hope you are having a wonderful Spring season – it was hot and humid here this weekend, with tornadoes on Sunday afternoon across central Iowa! A few of them touched down west and north of us – glad they missed us here in Des Moines!

More soon!

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Yard-farming 2013

In 1993 and again in 2008, our home in Des Moines was overcome by massive flooding of the Des Moines River. We lost most of our belongings in both floods, and after the one in 2008, we decided enough was enough and moved to a new place. Hard to believe we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the ’93 flood. Here’s one of my favorite photos from that year – that is our little blue house that my hubby Steve is boating towards. The line cutting through his shoulder is the top of the fence that surrounded my beloved patio. The water at this point has receded a couple feet. This picture is dated 7-15-93.

 

steverow
One of the decisions I made after the second flood in 2008,  as soon as we had determined that we were indeed going to move, was that I would take with me as many of the perennial plants from the old house as I could. Mostly, this meant hostas. I spent an afternoon, one day after we had closed on the new house but not yet moved in, digging up and dividing several hostas, potting them, and transporting them to the new house. I’ve had them in a placeholder garden ever since.

This year I decided to move them over to a couple areas adjacent to the house itself, and create a hosta garden across the front. Here’s the front of the house. Last Fall, we had a “tree guy” cut those yew shrubs to the ground. I’m neutral about them – if they come back, they come back. If not, that’s okay too.

house
This is a challenging area – sunny in the Spring, but mostly in shade as soon as the trees leaf out, except for a couple hours in the hottest part of the day.  Then there’s that overhang which extends a couple feet out. Underneath it is bone dry with fine, poor soil. But the rest of the area is moist with noticeable amounts of clay.

Here are a couple shots of one of the beds taken from a couple different angles. As you can see, it slopes off and has a flat stone wall as it wraps around the corner of the house. It includes mostly hostas, but also daylilies, sedum, and a stray Astilbe.

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And here is the area on the other side of the front door – the hostas were divided from one plant and will fill in quickly. Hopefully, I’ll soon be filling in all the open space with some annual impatiens.

 

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Finally, here’s a picture you’ve seen before of the area next to my front door, showing my glass globes and The Virgin Mary looking over a large hosta.

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It’s still early in the season, so this area currently looks like this, with several more plants added:

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Again, I’m hoping to fill in with annuals and some fresh mulch. I’m making progress!

 

More soon –

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Spring….?

Hi all, hope you are well! I haven’t updated here for a couple weeks, but I am still plugging along! I have been very busy moving hostas from one part of the yard to another – I am trying to make a little hosta garden and seating area at the front of our house, and with my left leg giving me fits it’s been a bit of a challenge. BUT, it was coming along quite nicely up until yesterday, May 2, when we began to get THIS:

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Can you believe it?? It has been snowing constantly since yesterday morning. Much has been melting as soon as it hits the ground, so the above is the extent of the accumulation, but still – it just makes me want to cry! I was SO ready for the warm weather to stick around! I had blooming daffodils… my tiny redbud tree was *just* about to pop into bloom… my husband had just mowed the lawn for the first time and it looked lush and green. It was Spring! And now it’s… not.

Oh well, as they say, “Don’t worry, it won’t last long.”

I do hope you are having a good week, I am not posting as often simply because it was finally warm enough to be outside working, riding the motorcycle, etc. But I am looking forward to sharing more thrifty treasures and the progress on my hosta garden as soon as I can!

 

More soon,

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Patio Garden memories

Editor’s note: WOOHOO!! I FOUND all the pictures of my old patio that I thought I had lost! I had this post all ready to go with a few stragglers that I had managed to dig up, but then I found where I had actually saved ALL the pictures on my computer. I did not (and DO not) remember doing that, but I am so glad I did! I’m sharing my favorites here!

Our old house didn’t have much to recommend it –  it was small, next to a dusty gravel road where young drivers liked to spin their tires, and over time the neighborhood around it had evolved into a bit of an industrial area so it was located right across the street from a factory. But it was the house my husband grew up in. Our daughter was born there, and we lived there as a family for 17 years, from 1991 – 2008 when it was finally destroyed by flooding. Here it is in winter:

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My favorite part of the house and property was the patio on the east side of the house. (In the photo above, we’re looking north. The patio is behind the fence on the right side of the picture. And yes, that big tree is wayyy too close to the house – and yes it was becoming a problem.) The patio was a slab of blacktop surrounded on three sides by a three-foot deep perennial border, and a lattice fence. On one end of the patio was a healthy row of large, old peony bushes – one of my favorite flowers.

Every year in the Spring and early summer, I would spend just about all my spare time tending the perennial border – moving plants around, adding new ones, arranging the “garden junk,” and just generally puttering. I absolutely was in heaven in this space, and I’ll be honest: while I don’t miss a lot of things about the house, I do miss the patio.

Here is the entry to the patio from the back yard. I built the path myself as a little walkway under the arbor, which was built out of plumbing pipe by my father-in-law sometime in the 1950’s when he owned the house.

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Here’s a better view of the little iron patio set – this was a garage sale find. FIVE dollars for all three pieces! I took a lot of naps on that glider! And, I made the table in the middle out of a thrifted lamp base. You can guess that because of the base’s shape, this wasn’t the sturdiest of tables. It sure was pretty though!

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Here is the area immediately to the left as you step in under the arbor. I love putting found items into the garden landscape – I honestly think that almost anything looks better with greenery growing around it! Here you can spot a little pedal car – a curb find – and, leaning against the fence, an old piece of barnwood that actually has a landscape painted on it.  The little trellis in the foreground was lashed together by my daughter. Plants in this area include hosta, peony, and bee balm. The tree is a yew that I “shaved” of it lower branches. You can’t see the full, green top, but this thing grew to be a monster by the time we left in 2008.

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Proceeding to the right from the previous photo, below is a very over-grown corner that I cleaned out one year, then built the little path, filled in with some new plants and junk, and left the patch of ribbon grass. This space looked a little different each year – in later years it was filled with purple coneflower. My pictures are not all from the same year so you can see how it evolved. This picture is before I planted the bee balm.

 

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Here’s the same space in a different year, when I took everything out and replaced it with mulch and stepping stones. The stones were acquired through a very unusual trade – I gave a local gal some bowling balls that she was going to decorate for the garden, and she gave me these pavers! You can see purple coneflower getting started in the lower right.

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This photo shows how I was able to use the remnants of a redbud tree by making it into a little shelf using the bottom of an old barrel planter.

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One of my favorite activities was acquiring different pieces of junk and turning them into garden vignettes. This child’s rocker was a curb find and I always loved the look of it sitting among the peonies.

 

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Here’s another view of the peonies in full bloom. The little patch of yellow to the left is Coreopsis Moonbeam, and the ribbon grass to the left of that. The Coreopsis didn’t last long in this spot, but the ribbon grass was there for many years – my mother-in-law planted it when she lived in the house.

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In the next few photos I stood in one spot along the longest part of the patio and took pictures to my left and right. This shot shows the corner we just saw, at the far left. You can see Mary in the corner, and a painted window frame/bird feeder project that I’ll show you in close-up later. The peonies by this time have thinned out – this happened because some of the trees in the area grew up and over, creating more shade at that end in the later years that we lived here.

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Turning to the right, this end of the patio was mostly in shade. Here I grew impatiens, Columbine, Bleeding Hearts, and other shade-lovers. The three rams marching across the fence are made of steel. I found these buried in an old overgrown garden that was being torn out at my friend’s daughter’s house. They were shooting targets! I painted them in my favorite bright colors and mounted them along the top of the fence, bullet dents and all! Peeking through the lattice, you can see some beautiful irises – those also came from my friend’s dismantled garden.

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Turning a little more to the right, here’s the south end. My junky artistry here is the glass globes – I disassembled some thrifted lamps, and put the glass bases back together with various bits of lamp hardware so I could hang them from the shepherd’s hooks. The blue one is my favorite – I’ve never seen another lamp quite like that one!

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This shot is the area shown above, in another year. You can tell I moved stuff around a lot! This shot also gives you a better look at the blue lamp.

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This area is a few more steps to the right, showing the tree that’s too close to the house. (My husband used a router to carve our names into it!) The item attached to the tree is a large iron bracket for a business sign, with a painted rooster on top of it. I hung the white chandelier from the bracket for a bit of humor. One year, I was sitting out on the patio admiring my space and noticed that the sign bracket had been stolen! I was very upset about that… someone had come up into my yard, inches from my house, and wrestled that thing loose from the tree – and carted it away as if they were entitled to it! Boy was I steamed.

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A couple of miscellaneous projects: here’s a close-up shot of the window/bird feeder, after it had weathered a few years. I picked up this old window frame, broke out the bottom pane, and fit a small tin tray in the open space. Filled it with birdseed and had lots of feathered visitors. This project also allowed me to experiment with stained glass paint.

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And a better shot of the glass globes. I put the smaller ones on sticks so I could poke them in here and there for a bit of sparkle and color:

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On the street-side of the fence, here’s a shot of the irises in full bloom that came from my friend’s daughter’s garden:

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Our new house presents a challenge in that it doesn’t have a ready gardening space near the house itself, with the exception of the small patch shown below near the front door. There’s a perennial bed out across the yard, and I’ve tried to do a little with it, but it doesn’t create the sweet little enclosed oasis that I had with the patio. I will continue to work with it and see how I can improve it. Here’s one shot, showing how I was able to rescue and re-use my glass globes!

glassglobes

 

Thank you for sticking with me on this photo-heavy post, and taking a tour of my old patio. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have found my pictures, and am delighted to get to share them!

 

More soon,

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Quick stop makes my day!

Was on my way to the doctor today to get a “boot” for my aching left foot which has a severe case of Achilles tendonitis (ouch!) but I was very, very early. So, I stopped in at a thrift store in our old neighborhood to have a look around and found something I’ve had on my thrift list for a long time: an inexpensive twin-size white chenille bedspread! Just $2.95 for this baby – woohoo!

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More soon,

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