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IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrelĀ  out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”

While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.

Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.

Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.

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Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.

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Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.

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Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.

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Beach plums in bloom

STEAMING TOWARD A MOVE-IN DATE of this Friday at my new/old house in East Hampton, N.Y. Yes, I know it doesn’t look move-in ready, and the fact is, I still don’t have water. But that’s my goal. The phantom plumber was supposed to come yesterday to hook up a couple of fairly important items, including a toilet, but he was sick. Fingers crossed for today.

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I had two satisfyingly productive days recently. On Sunday afternoon, I put a coat of primer on the plywood floor in the dining/sitting room, above and below, soon to be covered by floor paint, probably white. Quick way to make the place feel cleaner and brighter.

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This first required the painstaking removal of hundreds of carpet staples, most with tufts of carpet stuck to them, a prospect that had been hanging me up for weeks. My daughter got to it last week with a pair of pliers, enabling the operation to proceed, and for that I am very grateful.

photo_3I spent almost all day Monday cleaning the house as best I could without H2O. That was a rather non-green operation involving broom and dustpan, the vac, Swiffers both dry and wet, spray cleaner, and lots and lots of paper towels. I won’t be happy until I get my rubber gloves into a bucket of hot soapy water, but it helped.

While I worked inside, Eric the tree man buzzed and chipped outside, removing tree limbs and a couple of whole trees near the house that posed a danger of falling. It’s not a dramatic change, but to me, the space in front of the house feels more open and airy. (Don’t go by these iPhone shots. I keep saying the place looks brighter, while the photos look terribly dim.)

The kitchen floor, below – 18″x18″ charcoal gray tiles — has been laid and will be grouted today.

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This was the inspiration photo for the floor tiles:

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The stove and fridge are being delivered later this week.

The contractor built a wooden base for a deep two-basin kitchen sink top that was left behind in the shed, below, following a magazine picture I showed him. I think it came out better than the picture.

IMG_1790Then I’ll have to say goodbye to all my helpers for a while and forge on alone for the next couple of months. The coffers have run dry, and all incoming funds will be going toward fix-ups at our mews house in Brooklyn. <–That link is to a four-year-old post; the rent has gone up. If interested, contact me at caramia447@gmail. The longtime renters are leaving, and the place requires attention and an infusion of cash.

By the way, anyone need a 9-1/2 foot long liquid propane tank, bottom? Once used to heat a now-disappeared swimming pool, it sits in the parking area like a beached submarine. I got a $4,000 estimate to take it away, so it won’t be leaving any time soon. It’s not in my way, but neither do I anticipate any future use for it. Do I have any takers?

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A GRANDLY PROPORTIONED PARLOR FLOOR with 12-1/2-foot ceilings and luscious Italianate plasterwork is the subject today of The Insider, my weekly interior design/renovation column on Brownstoner.com.

It’s a co-op belonging to my friend Lula Blackwell-Hafner, a professional garden designer with a skill set ranging from glazing to wood refinishing to ceramic tilework. To read about Lula’s recent shoestring renovation of the apartment’s plaster and woodwork, and see photos of her Boho-eclectic decor, click here.

THE LATEST IN MY SERIES of interior design/renovation columns for Brownstoner.com is up today — it’s a 1,200-square-foot duplex in Cobble Hill, with space and storage challenges masterminded by the talented local team Nastasi Vail.

It has a nice kitchen, too.

Go here to see the whole thing, including the shockingly claustrophobic kitchen ‘Before.’

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CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT underway at my building in Cobble Hill — our former family home, now rented out to another family. I’m replacing three top-floor windows at the rear of the house — two in the master bedroom and one in a smaller bedroom next door.

Should be straightforward, right? Of course it’s not, because when we raised the roof in those two rooms, back in 1987 — it was originally attic crawl space you couldn’t stand up in — we created arched windows. Replacing them now requires either new, custom-fabricated all-in-one units or modified millwork so that the original fixed fanlights, which are fine and which I still like, can stay in place.

These arched windows are not accurate for the 1850s date of the house, but they’re in the back, so Landmarks was never an issue. And they sure looked pretty — before they started falling apart, that is. They’re not insulated, all wood, and perhaps they were never primed properly. They’ve virtually rotted, with panes falling out.

The rotting windows are six-over-six; at the time, I thought that was the proper historic configuration. Now I understand it’s likely they were two-over-two, and that’s what’s going in instead. That will line up properly with the mullions in the existing fanlight, which the previous sash never did (a neophyte’s design mistake). And instead of replacing the whole arch with a single unit, I’m having the fanlights at the top modified to accommodate new Marvin windows, which will be insulated, with ‘true divided lights’ (real instead of fake mullions) — aluminum clad on the outside, wood on the inside.

I’m using one of two contractors I met with, both recommended by Dykes Lumber, a local building-supply company: the one who showed up on time, took careful measurements, followed up as promised with an emailed proposal, and generally inspired confidence. The other guy was rushed, answered calls on his pager, took a few digital pictures but no notes or measurements, and gave me an on-the-spot rough estimate. It happened to coincide almost exactly with the one I received from contractor #1 a couple of days later, but his general demeanor made me not want to hire him.

I didn’t call any of the other names I had collected from neighbors and online resources. I’m going with my gut on this one. And even though the whole deal is going to cost six grand [frowny face], it feels good to be doing right by the house this time.

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