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Sourcebook for Cultivated Living

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    When I installed three window boxes on my San Francisco apartment several weeks ago, I dropped in an easy mix of plants for instant gratification. I eventually got more creative and put together a nontraditional Christmas arrangement for the planters, but in between I felt antsy for a little holiday flair. To the rescue, three ingredients—clear battery-powered string lights; white hardware-store cyclamen, and dried eucalyptus pods—which I styled in the window boxes in a matter of minutes. 

    Photographs by Meredith Swinehart. Photography shot with the Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera, with Dual Pixel AF technology and built-in Wi-Fi.

    Black window box with white cyclamen and eucalyptus pods for holiday arrangement, photo by Meredith Swinehart, Gardenista

    Above: A completed three-ingredient holiday window box. 

    String lights, eucalyptus pods, and white cyclamen for holiday window box arrangement, Gardenista

    Above: Battery-powered string lights, dried eucalyptus pods, and white cyclamen are all that is required.

    White cyclamen for holiday arrangement, Gardenista

    Above: Around the holidays, white cyclamens are plentiful and inexpensive. Michelle grouped several to decorate indoors; see the result in A White Christmas, with Potted Cyclamen

    White cyclamen and eucalyptus pods in holiday window box, Gardenista

    Above: The boxes look dressed up without being overly precious.

    Eucalyptus pods and white Christmas lights in holiday window box, Gardenista

    Above: If your December isn't very wet, you can pluck the dried pods out of your window boxes after the season and continue to decorate with them throughout the year. 

    Black painted window box with white cyclamen for Christmas, Gardenista

    Above: The bright white cyclamens are reminiscent of snow, even in sunny California.

    Read about how I made the window boxes in DIY Window Boxes: Build It Yourself for a Perfect Fit, and then decked them out for the holidays (with spiky bromeliads) in DIY: Christmas Window Boxes.

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    It was a big week of news, with the Mafia threatening to corner the poinsettia market. Plus, we discovered the eight best woodsy-scented holiday candles: 

      hanging wire fruit basket from etsy l Gardenista

    Above: A different take on ornaments.

    Trending on Remodelista: Editors' Favorite Gift Picks.

    Christmas cyclamens in pots l Gardenista  

    The Italian Job: poinsettia shakedown in Naples. It's enough to make you switch to cyclamens for safety.

    How are you going to pick just one of the eight best-smelling holiday candles?

      Design Love Fest Christmas Wreath DIY l Gardenista

    Above: Photograph via Design Love Fest.

    Just when you thought we'd made enough DIY wreaths, we fell for one more.

    Ghost of Christmas Future: Persuasive 9th grade scientists are tempting Erin to go off the grid immediately.

    Holiday playlist.

    Cauliflower soup from Haven's Kitchen l Gardenista

    What to eat the day after Christmas.

    Cannelle et vanille studio office space l Gardenista

    Above: Photograph via SF Girl by Bay.

    Canelle et Vanille's new studio made us decide: We are definitely fixing up our offices come January (watch this space). The color scheme also reminded us of how obsessed we were this year with her fruit and chamomile tart



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    Florist Dundee Butcher (aside from having one of the best names out there) boasts an impressive floral pedigree and counts Kensington Palace, Claridge's Hotel, and the Victoria and Albert Museum among her clients. The Texas native spent several years working in London, where she trained with famed British floral designer Jane Packer. Earlier this year, she moved to Healdsburg, in Northern California, and opened the Russian River Flower School, where she teaches classes and sells her floral creations. As she says, "I am never happier than when I am working with beautiful blooms."

    On a recent visit, I spotted these holiday wreaths made from the common tree lichen known as Old Man's Beard and asked Dundee to give us a tutorial. She happily obliged, and I've since made three of them. They're astonishingly easy:

    Photography by Mimi Giboin.

    Above: The holiday wreaths on display at the Russian River Flower School.

    Above: All you need is some Old Man's Beard, a wire frame (the Maine Wreath Co. offers double rail wreath rings in plenty of sizes), some twine, and a pair of scissors. Old Man's Beard is a species of lichen known as usnea; you can find it hanging from trees branches, much like Spanish moss, in temperate zones of the US. It's fragile but thrives on clean air. 

    Above: Take a bunch of Old Man's Beard and wrap it around the wire frame into a semblance of a round shape. (You can keep all the twigs and things that are caught in it.)

    Above: Crimp the wreath to make sure it is the same thickness all the way around. To even it out, you can knead it a bit like bread. If it looks light or patchy in any spots, tuck in some more Old Man's Beard.

    Above: Turn over the wire frame and start tying the Old Man's Beard to the frame using lengths of twine that are knotted in the front of the wreath.

    Above: Make sure to tie tight knots and to space the twine ties in regular intervals all around the wreath.

    Above: A waxed twine works well. You can also use ribbon or leather cord or string to decorate the wreath—anything, really.

    Above: A finished wreath. 

    Above: An alternative decoration is Old Man's Beard wrapped around a styrofoam ball. No glue needed, just tie string in a web around the ball until the greenery is held in place. The loop on the top is made from rope and is affixed with a push pin. 

    For more holiday-wreath making merriment, check out Kendra's Rose Hip Wreaths from the Hedgerow.

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    Every weekday morning, before sitting down to work, I slip on a pair of old sneakers and take a quiet half hour walk to see what’s happening in my Brooklyn neighborhood. These walks have become especially delightful in December, as one by one my neighbors have added wintry decorations to their front doors.

    This season, I’ve been finding myself drawn to wreaths hanging on black painted doors; I love the dash of bright green standing in relief against a sophisticated black backdrop. Here are a few favorites from the neighborhood.

    Photographs by Erin Boyle except where noted.

    Above: This enormous wreath is a show stopper even without ribbons or bows.

    Above: Nicole Franzen captured this simple boxwood beauty. I can't decide whether I'm most drawn to the wreath or the sweet brass knocker. Photograph by Nicole Franzen.

    Above: This Brooklyn house has a grand front entrance, but I was partial to the smaller side door with a simple wreath hung up high—with pine cones in lieu of a bow.

    Above: While it doesn't have quite the same oomph as its greener cousins, this twig and berry wreath is beautifully understated.

    Above: These neighboring townhouses have matching black doors—and matching fir wreaths.

    Above: Garden-level entryways also deserve a little sprucing up. This wintry wreath incorporates tiny white tallow berries.

    Above: OK, not in my neighborhood—but this intricate set of French doors would look right at home if they were. Currently making the rounds on Pinterest, these doors got a whimsical greeting via paper maché artists Farfelus Farfadets. Photograph via Marie Claire Maison.

    Above: Back to Brooklyn, where double doors get double the attention with matching wreaths. Pine cones and eucalyptus add texture.

    For more painted doors, see "5 Favorites: Daring Red Doors" and "5 Favorites: British Front Doors with Style."

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published December 17, 2012.

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  • 12/23/13--03:00: DIY: Bottle-Fed Paperwhites
  • Chilly weather means that I spend a lot more time inside than I'd like to. Happily, I've found one January treat that brightens even my most homebound days: paperwhites. Most years, I've grown my paperwhites in a pot with small stones, but this year I opted to put my antique bottle collection to good use and grow them in water:

    Photographs by Erin Boyle.

    Above: Incredibly easy to force indoors, paperwhites add a much needed spot of spring to the depths of winter.

    Above: I started this project by heading to a local flower shop that sells bulbs so I could rummage through their stock and take my pick. I wanted bulbs that were as symmetrical as possible so they would be less likely to lean to one side after the shoots began to grow. My local florist still has paperwhite bulbs in stock, but in case they're hard to find in your neck of the woods, you can give hyacinth bulbs a try instead.

    Above: When you're starting paperwhite bulbs, it's important to make sure the root hairs are submerged in water, without submerging the bulb itself. Bottle necks work nicely because they keep a bulb up and out of the water.

    Above: The paperwhite bulb acts like a stopper on the top of the bottle and prevents too much water from evaporating, but it's still a good idea to check in with your bulbs for the first few days to make sure the roots are still in water. After the roots begin to grow downward, a little water loss won't hurt.

    Above: As shoots begin to grow upward, paperwhites can become top heavy. Forcing bulbs in a pot with small stones has the advantage of giving the roots something to cling to, but I love the look of the roots suspended in water and so I'm willing to fuss a little bit more to keep them standing. Wedging a small stone under a bulb does the trick nicely. If your paperwhites become really heavy, you might simply try leaning the shoots against a window or propping them against one another for balance.

    (N.B.: Another technique is to add alcohol to the water to stunt the growth of the stems but not the blooms; see "DIY: Get Your Paperwhites Drunk for Better Blooms.")

    Above: Because I started my bulbs at different times, I'll be able to move the bulbs I started in tiny bottles to larger bottles where there's more room for the roots to grow and more surface area for the bulb to balance. The total time from bulb to flowers was about a month for my earliest bulbs, but timing will be somewhat dependent on the amount of sunlight you have in your space. I keep my bulbs in a window that gets just about two hours of direct sunlight a day. It's not enough for my poor sweet succulent, but it's been just right for paperwhites.

    If you accidentally knock your shoots, like I did, and end up with a paperwhite casualty, there's no reason to worry. The flowers will last almost as long in a vase with water as they do on the plant.

    Above: One of my favorite things about paperwhites is the incredible scent. When these flowers finally pop, they bring with them a fragrance that's heady and delicious and shockingly strong. Just the thing to dash away wintertime blues.

    N.B.: This is a post originally published January 17, 2013.

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    I think we can all agree by now that the most worthless space in a conventional house is the dining room. I have lived in seven houses, and in all of them, this was a sad and misused place, a room you walked through to dump schoolbooks and dog leashes and violin cases on your way to a real room. Finally, in my current house, we’ve eliminated it—through the invention of a little something I call the formal kitchen:

    Above: In this Portland, OR, loft by Jessica Helgerson, an Arctic Pear Chandelier adds a note of glamor; for pricing, see Ochre. Photograph by Lincoln Barbour.

    What is the difference between a regular old eat-in kitchen and a formal kitchen? It's slight—perhaps undetectable to the casual observer—and depends on a few key details that make it possible to transform the room where your mom made hot tomato soup for lunch on a rainy day into a glamorous dinner party-worthy destination.

    Step One is flattering lighting. A chandelier on a dimmer does double duty; it can function as task lighting if your kids are at the table doing homework while you're cooking supper. Lower the wattage to a guest-flattering approximation of candlelight when company comes in.

    And it is inevitable that guests will wander in. They do already—I've seen them in your kitchen as well as mine, hanging around the stove while we stir things. They look completely relaxed and happy, with their glasses of wine and vague offers to "help cook." Of course they want to be here, because it's where the action is.

    There's historical precedent. Before the invention of the dining room, everybody from miles around came together to eat in the same room where the boar or whatever they were eating in those days was being roasted. While there are other things about the Middle Ages I wouldn't necessarily want to import to the 21st century (see: plague), the custom of coming together in a Great Hall had a lot going for it.

    Here are some simple design details that I incorporated into a remodel a few months ago to create a formal kitchen:

    I stopped separating "everyday" from "fancy." It's easier to entertain if you don't have to haul out the good china from deep storage. I learned by accident —when I was trying to travel light while moving back and forth across the country—that it's perfectly adequate to own a single set of dishes (white) and one set of flatware. I keep things simple by storing it all in kitchen drawers. Shown above: dinnerware from SF ceramicist Lea Ann Roddan (the pieces come in several colors, but Yellow Salt Glaze is particularly pretty). A dinner plate is $40, a small plate is $33, and an eight-inch saladier is $44. For more information, see Sue Fisher King.

    My kitchen also has a deep drawer stocked with linens—and everything in the drawer gets used all the time. My Liberty Napkins (similar to patterns available for $37 apiece at Sue Fisher King) wash beautifully and the pattern will smooth things over if someone spills red wine on them.

    Likewise, I use my one set of silverware—an ornate sterling silver pattern, passed down from my husband's grandparents—at every meal. There's nothing sturdier than sterling. As an alternative, a nice heavy silverplate flatware is Chambly's pattern, Baguette (Above); $312 for a five-piece setting at Sue Fisher King.

    Above: Line your silverware drawer with soft felt that doesn't fray. Siematic storage drawers (Above) are lined with tarnish-resistant cloth; image via Elle Decor. NancySilver offers a range of flatware storage solutions, including Treated Silver Cloth by the yard and Drawer Liner Inserts in several different sizes.

    Above: This vintage Persian rug, which I have had for at least 15 years, wears like iron (I say that as a dog owner). It also adds warmth and graciousness to a kitchen.

    My Flatiron Table from Restoration Hardware has wheels, making it easy to push around (if I need to make room for more guests, for instance) or even outside onto the patio, for summer dinner parties. The 19th century style of the wooden Madeleine Side Chairs ($99 apiece from Restoration Hardware) elevate the room's ambitions. A hardwood floor makes a kitchen feel more connected to the rest of the house; it's also more forgiving than tile if guests drop a glass and muffles, rather than amplifying, sounds.

    Above: With your sink on view, you have an excuse to store natural dish brushes in an Astier de Villatte Sobre Small Vase; $140 at Sue Fisher King. An extra deep sink hides dirty dishes and pots from guests' view during dinner. I decided to forgo the upper cabinets on this long wall to make the room seem more spacious and to emphasize the garden views visible from the windows.

    Above: A natural linen dish cloth, like this one from Vaxbo Linen in Sweden, is pretty enough to leave lying around on the counter. When you've wrung every bit of utility out of the cloth, it can be buried in the yard (it's fully biodegradable, since it's natural linen).

    I think you should ditch your dining room too, in favor of a formal kitchen. Do it today. If I sound bossy, it is only because I am so happy in my kitchen, and I want you to feel the same pure shock of joy every time you sit down to a meal. I want you to believe it's effortless to throw a dinner party and to think it's perfectly natural—routine, even—to have a bunch of your friends sitting around your kitchen table in age-erasing warm light, laughing and talking until the candles burn out.

    As for my dining room? Ah, you mean my library. More on that later.

    Agree or disagree? Has Michelle gone overboard...or have you ditched your dining room too? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

    For more of Michelle's kitchen, see Rehab Diaries: Michelle's Mill Valley Kitchen Redo. To hear about how she almost ruined the marble backsplash over her stove, see My Dirty Secret: How I Learned to Live With a Marble Backsplash.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published January 28, 2013.

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    It can be hard to know what to do with a window box as the weather gets colder. Some of my Brooklyn neighbors will let their boxes sit empty for the coming months, while others will plant miniature evergreens and replace them with plants of the flowering variety in warmer weather. I admit that I like to take a slightly different approach. Instead of planting my winter window box, I decorate it. Here's how:

    Photographs by Erin Boyle.

    Above: Last weekend, I took the train to my parents’ house outside the city and returned with a brown paper bag filled with wintry trimmings to spruce up my box for the winter and to add holiday cheer.

    winter window box | gardenista

    Above: I began my search with a walk around the yard, scoping out low-hanging branches on evergreen trees and bushes. I wanted a variety of colors and textures, so I took clippings from umbrella pine branches, cedar trees, and holly bushes and gathered as many pine cones as I could find. If you don’t happen to have a place nearby where you can forage for wintry clippings, you might have luck at a local flower shop or Christmas tree lot. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, just about every corner flower shop is hawking big bunches of bright red winterberry and juniper clippings this month.

    winter window box | gardenista

    Above: I kept the soil in my window box (if I’m lucky, the perennial forget-me-nots I planted in April will bloom again next year) and trimmed my vinca vines for the winter. Large clippings from white pine or cedar trees make a good first layer, so I began by tucking alternating branches into the soil.

    winter window box | gardenista

    Above: I made sure to bury the very ends of my clippings in an effort to help them stay green for as long as possible. If the temperatures are cool, the greens should last a month or two before beginning to brown. When they dry out, it will be easy to make a swap for something fresh.

    winter window box | gardenista

    Above: After the first layer of pine and cedar, I tucked pine cones into bare spots and stuck shorter holly clippings vertically into the dirt to help anchor the larger branches and pine cones. The result is festive for the holidays and makes for good protection for the soil during the long winter. With the window box tucked into the rear of our building, not many neighbors get the chance to see it, but it’s adding cheer to our tiny apartment and that’s good enough for me.


    Above: The completed box. To see what my window boxes look like in the summer, see DIY: A Window Box Grows in Brooklyn.

    For more urban garden ideas, see DIY Vertical Garden Kit: Just Add Water (and a Wall).

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published December 3, 2012.

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    Photographer and Bar Harbor native Jennifer Steen Booher recently captured one of Acadia National Park's popular landscapes as most summer tourists seldom see it: in the glory of a winter storm. At a modest two miles, Jesup Path loop is the perfect walk for a snowy winter day, when other Maine trails might be impassible:

    Above: A Remodelista favorite, photographer Jennifer Steen Booher of Quercus Design has been capturing images of Bar Harbor Maine for years. Here the hemlock trail is particularly stunning seen through a veil of snow flakes.

    Above: Here, Jenn passes through the birch forest.

    Above: OK, not a native Maine rabbit. But Jenn's daughter's Netherland Dwarf bunny, Shilow, captured enjoying the same storm, was so cute we had to share.

    Above: The trail passes the Great Meadow and continues to the Park Loop Road.

    Above: A small stream flows through a culvert under the path into the Great Meadow marsh.

    Above: Tracks of another hiker: a squirrel crossing the Park Loop Road.

    Above: Doubling back across the road again, the path follows the Great Meadow Loop, which offers great views of the Cadillac and Dorr Mountains.

    Above: During the walk, increasingly heavy snowfall clung to the branches of a pine.

    Above: The Jesup Path leads through a large forest of hemlocks, which survived a 1947 fire that burned 17,000 acres of the park.

    Above: Jenn's hike lead her as far as the birch forest, where a tunnel of white trees creates a magical snow kingdom.

    Above: The Jesup Path loop; for directions and more information, see Maine Trail Finder.

    N.B. Looking for more winter walks worldwide? Enjoy a scenic sled ride to school in Belgium or a Colorado Gold Rush climb.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 22, 2013.

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    As far as bathrooms in rental apartments go, we're pretty lucky. With a palette of white and more white, we were saved from the Pepto-Bismal pink tile and glitter-flecked vanities that I've seen in my friends' apartments. Still, white tile nearly up to the ceiling can make even the most adamant minimalist yearn for a spot of color. My favorite way to liven up the space is with plants.

    Photographs by Erin Boyle.

    Our bathroom is the sunniest spot in our apartment and we've had luck over-wintering a geranium and nurturing a silver spotted philodendron, but our most recent addition has admittedly stolen the show. The delicate button fern thrives in the filtered sunlight and moisture of our tiny bathroom. UPDATE: Our intrepid reader, Emma, pointed out that this plant is actually a maidenhair fern and not a button fern as we originally thought. The maidenhair fern thrives in shadier spots, so we're going to move her to a darker corner! Suddenly, I'm feeling very grateful for all the dreary weather we've been having in Brooklyn lately. If you can't find one locally, a Button Fern in a 6-inch pot is $18 from Pernell Gerver.

    Perched above our bathroom medicine cabinet, the fern weeps sideways and shoots upward, creating a dramatic display against the bright white. Because of its position on a somewhat precariously hung cabinet, I opted to plant it in a lightweight vintage tea tin instead of a much heavier ceramic planter. A large selection of Vintage Tea Tins is available on Etsy.

    A small nail and hammer was all I needed to poke drainage holes in the bottom of the tin. Like most ferns, maidenhair ferns like to be kept fairly moist, but without proper drainage they run the risk of getting too saturated.

    Before I transferred my fern from its nursery planter to the tea tin, I loosened the soil around the roots. Since a proper potting table didn't make the cut in our small apartment, I work with a bit of unfolded newspaper on my kitchen table/desk to make cleanup easy.

    Like many ferns, maidenhair ferns enjoy shade. You might also consider going for the equally shade and moisture-loving rabbit's foot fern. We have one in another shady spot that's doing quite well and we're thinking of relocating this maidenhair fern to be by its side. A Rabbit's Foot Fern is $10 from Pernell Gerver.

    High above the medicine cabinet, with a vintage snuff jar filled with cotton balls for company, the patina on the tin warms up our otherwise very white bathroom. In case you're hoping for a little vintage addition to your bathroom, I purchased this tea tin inexpensively at the Brooklyn Flea. For non-locals, Etsy is an excellent source for scoping out similar vintage treasures.

    Looking for more ways to add a little greenery to your bathroom? See 5 Favorites: Plants for the Bathroom.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 27, 2012.

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  • 12/24/13--06:00: Sofas: How Low Can You Go?
  • Is there anything scarier than a sofa? I've been reluctant to buy one since my last blunder, a Ralph Lauren leather sleigh so large that our feet dangled. The back and arms were high and swooping; it felt like being in a skateboard park. Children etched initials in the leather. This time I resolved to get an elegant, low-slung sofa for the living room. The day it arrived, though, I realized I had once again made a terrible, terrible mistake:

    "That looks like dollhouse furniture," my husband said, wandering into the living room. "Is it for the dogs?"

    He had a point. Bought to replace the old sofa that I'd moved to the former dining room, this new one looked so low I worried our knees would knock into our chins. The seat back barely reached our shoulder blades. And our 26-inch-high side tables looked like they were bullying it.

    How had this debacle happened? Are there secret guidelines for determining the right size furniture for a room? If so, I needed to learn them—and fast.

    Subscribe to get more of Michelle's weekly Domestic Dispatches adventures.

    Photographs by Mimi Giboin.

    Clinically, I scrutinized my new Sorensen Sofa (above). At 7 feet long and 33 inches deep, the Restoration Hardware sofa should have been right for a narrow living room with 8.5-foot-high ceilings. At 27 inches high, it fit perfectly under the windows. But it looked, for some reason, like a toy.

    "Maybe you can return it," my husband observed helpfully.

    "I don't think so," I said. "It was a custom order."

    It is not a good feeling to carefully measure a room—not once, not twice, but a hundred times—before ordering a piece of furniture that you must wait for two months to get and which, when it finally arrives, appears to have been a complete waste of money. In fact, it doesn't get much worse in the home-decorating game. A faux pas of this magnitude calls into question one's taste, one's judgment, and whether one should ever again be allowed to buy a piece of furniture without involving one's spouse in the decision.

    I needed help. So I phoned LA-based interior designer Alexandra Loew for advice:

    "First of all, that is not a sofa, that's a bench," Ms. Loew said, after she looked up the Sorensen Sofa. "It's a beautiful piece, inspired by a Danish 1940s Borge Mogensen love seat. But it's so small—my husband would kill me if I brought that sofa home. Probably my kids would too."

    Although Ms. Loew is generally in favor of small-scale furniture ("I almost always buy vintage pieces for clients because older furniture was smaller; new production furniture is too big and dwarfs a room"), she said the one exception to that rule is when it comes time to buy a sofa.

    "From a comfort standpoint, new production seating is better," she said.

    For clients, Ms. Loew said her favorite sofas are by John Saladino or George Smith because they're "impeccably made" and come in lots of sizes, with adjustable lengths, depths, and "degrees of cush."

    Think about how a sofa will relate to other pieces in the room, she said. Side tables "should never be taller than the sofa arm, because you want it to be a comfortable reach to set something down," she said.

    When choosing a sofa, Ms. Loew said, consider the tallest member of your household. If that person is 6 feet tall, for instance, "you know you need to get a seat depth greater than 36 inches."

    What is the point of a sofa, after all, if it not to erase the stress of your day with a welcoming embrace? Since the invention of the modern sofa in the 1600s when Parisian craftsmen started producing two- and three-seater sophas, people have been draping corseted bodices over an arm and stretching out in lacy dropped-shoulder jackets to watch Grey's Anatomy (or whatever they watched on TV in the 17th century).

    In other words, the actual height of a piece of furniture is perhaps less important than how its dimensions and proportions work together—both the seat and the arms should be at comfortable heights and complement each other. For instance, I have a pair of very small bergère chairs (above) that my mother-in-law bought in the late 1960s. Despite a diminutive profile—they're 24 inches deep, 26 inches wide, and just 29 inches tall—they're extremely comfortable.

    "With vintage pieces like that, I can think you can put more furniture in a room, and I think rooms look nice with lots of pieces," Ms. Loew said.

    After I hung up, I flopped down on my new sofa—just to test it. Although the piece was low in profile, the seat was a standard height. Squirming around, I had to admit it was a success from a comfort standpoint. If only it didn't look so...small.

    "Why did you get a sofa in such a weird light brown color?" my husband asked.

    "I did not get a weird light brown color," I snapped. "It's a beautiful dark brown color—Cafe, it is called."

    Now that he mentioned it, though, it was kind of light. I pulled out my complete set of Restoration Hardware fabric swatches (collected painstakingly over the course of many visits to my local store) to compare.

    "Oh my God," I said. The sofa was not Cafe, it was Mocha.

    They made it in the wrong color! It was their fault, not mine. I felt as if I'd won the lottery. I emailed a photo (of the swatches spread out on the sofa) to a customer service representative who apologized and said that I could return the sofa for a full refund. It was like something out of Dickens: After being shown how bad the future could have been, I'd been offered a second chance to change the course of history.

    "You know where it might look good?" my husband asked. "In the dining room."

    "You mean in the library?" I asked. (We are transitioning.)

    I already had a sofa in that other room—a Chester Tufted Upholstered Sofa (above) from West Elm that had been moved there some weeks earlier to make way for the Sorensen Sofa. Actually, the Chester Sofa was pretty low, too—just 29 inches high—and had looked very nice in the living room (above) before it got moved into the library.

    Around this time, my friend Stephanie (an interior designer who had overseen my Recent Kitchen Rehab) dropped in to see how the new sofa looked.

    "You know where it might look good is in the library," she said.

    "You have good taste," my husband told Stephanie.

    "You don't have to keep it," Stephanie said. "But it would be interesting to see how it looks in there. As an exercise."

    Together the three of us moved the sofas—and all the other furniture—around. The Chester Sofa went back to the living room. And the instant the Sorensen Sofa settled underneath the windows in the library (a much smaller, symmetrical room), it looked at home. With a northern exposure, the room was moodier, too; the upholstery looked dark brown instead of light.

    "I think they didmake it in Cafe," Stephanie said, "but it was just a weird dye lot."

    The next day Stephanie and I went to the Oakland Museum's White Elephant Sale Preview, where she found two small leather-topped side tables, 24 inches high, $60 for the pair.

    "You should buy these and see how they look with the sofa," she said. "Not that you're keeping it."

    Flanked by the two smaller side tables, the Sorensen Sofa suddenly had stature. It suited the smaller room nicely. And it was the perfect height for resting a tea cup on the window sill.

    "You know," Stephanie said, "every time you buy a piece of furniture, it's an adjustment. It never looks in real life like you imagined it. Live with it for a few days."

    A few days later, Restoration Hardware's furniture service called to schedule a pickup. "I'm keeping it," I said.

    It's the best sofa I've ever had.

    If you wonder why Michelle turned the dining room into a library in the first place, see The Death of the Dining Room.

    Subscribe to get more of Michelle's weekly Domestic Dispatches adventures.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 4, 2013.

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    Like the nomadic huts of our ancestors, a modern structure that feels as if it's one with the land can be an irresistible gathering place. And after the people move on? There will be no sign that it was ever there:

    The brainchild of Japanese artist and designer Hidemi Mishida, Fragile Shelter explores the relationship of humans with nature and with each other. It is a simple timber and plastic structure, devoid of furniture—an extemporaneous gathering place, located deep in the winter woods in Sapporo, Japan. Deliberately designed to be temporary, after it is gone Fragile Shelter will leave no trace.

    Above: Constructed of wooden beams and plastic, the six-roomed structure has a nave-like effect; it's a temple to the nature that surrounds it.

    Above: At night Fragile Shelter hovers like a lantern over the landscape.

    Above: Resting just above the snow, Fragile Shelter's ethereal rooms follow the contours of the land.

    Above: A single stove provides just enough heat to keep this gathering cozy.

    Above: In the daytime, Fragile Shelter blends into the landscape.

    Above: Candlelight by the entrance makes an inviting image.

    Looking for more Zen retreats? Visit our gallery of Serene Japanese Spaces.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published March 6, 2013.

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    The typical rectangular raised bed is a space hog that tends to dominate a garden. The other day I ran across a stylish alternative—painted livestock water troughs. Here's how to get the same look:

    Photographs by Marla Aufmuth.

    Above: The raised beds, seen in the distance beyond a trellis, look like large decorative planters when viewed from the house.

    Two troughs with a small footprint—each is 2 feet wide and 6 feet long—sit side by side in the yard behind a San Francisco row house in a garden created by designer Katey Mulligan. At a height of 24 inches, each trough provides a luxurious depth of soil to promote root growth of vegetables and herbs.

    Last week members of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers were in town to tour this and other gardens in the Bay area. For more gardens on the tour, see Small-Scale Gardening in San Francisco.

    Above: The homeowner purchased the water troughs from a farm supply store in Santa Rosa, California. A similar 123-Gallon Round End Tank is available from Amazon for $176.65.

    (N.B.: Want to see more of our favorite photos? See what we're pinning and follow us on Pinterest here.)

    Above: The homeowner painted the galvanized tanks with a metallic exterior paint. For UK gardeners, Metallic Paint in four colors—gold, silver, brass, or copper— is available from Stonehouses for £13.85. For US gardeners, Studio Finish Molten Metallics paint in six colors—gold, bronze, silver, copper, gun smoke, and charcoal—is available from Benjamin Moore for $22.95 a quart.

    Above: The homeowner drilled holes in the bottom for drainage before setting the troughs in gravel. The plug was removed from each trough's drain hole, through which the irrigation system's hose was attached.

    Above: Washed Gravel (L) is available in a variety of colors and sizes, and one ton will cover approximately 100 square feet at a depth of 2 inches; for more information, see NJ Gravel Sand. For information about irrigation kits and supplies (R), see Irrigation Direct.

    Above: For pre-made fence panels, see 10 Easy Pieces: Instant Fencing.

    Above: At the bottom of each trough is a layer of gravel for drainage, topped by soil cloth (to prevent soil from washing away). The soil is a comfortable 22 inches deep, allowing the homeowner to "crowd" plants at the surface because their roots have so much space to grow vertically. The beds are planted with a mix of arugula, sage, rosemary, oregano, and other herbs. For seeds, see Johnny's Seeds.

    Above: Chives thrive in a raised bed; a packet of Fine Leaf Chive seeds is $3.45 from Johnny's Seeds

    Above: Side by side, the troughs have a slim profile.

    Planning your spring garden? See more designs for Raised Bed Gardens.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published September 26, 2012.

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    Spread out in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, the garden at Little Sparta was created by artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay over decades, with his wife Sue. Simply put, It is one of the greatest works of art created in Scotland.

    "Little Sparta is not just a garden but an entire art work," says Derek Brown, a production designer and Gardenista reader, and our guide on this visit. Brown's connection to Little Sparta began when he was a boy, living nearby as the creation of the garden got underway. Recently Brown returned for a visit and found Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden to be "deeply personal and engaging, a total immersion into his world."

    Photographs by Derek Brown.

    Above: In the early days, after Finlay purchased the five-acre plot in 1966, and Brown was at school with Eck (the nickname of Alec Hamilton Finlay, son of the artist), the garden was very much a work-in-progress. Brown wasn't very interested in what was going on there. In the intervening decades he changed and the garden changed. There had been "time for trees and plants to grow, landscaping to settle, lochs to establish, and poetry to be written." There had been time to compile an extraordinary work.

    Above: "Goose Hut" made with wood and heather. Ian Hamilton Finlay worked with many collaborators to realize his vision. The hut, made with Andrew Townsend, has recently been restored.

    Above: Ian Hamilton Finlay was a "concrete poet," intensely interested in words and the application of words. When Finlay and his wife arrived at the unpromising farm (originally named Stonypath), they immediately set about constructing waterways to create a series of ponds and lochs. These were a way of dividing up the garden, so that a landscape could be composed around them. The garden was re-named Little Sparta in the 1980s, in part a reference to its relationship with Edinburgh, known as the Athens of the North.

    Above: Sue Finlay wrote of her devotion to the garden and of "tending the poems" just as one would tend plants. The Finlays' son Alec has among his first memories the physical labor of his parents: of the two of them working hard to make the garden together. "He made the paths, she planted the flowers," he says.

    Above: A reminder of war, one of the leitmotifs of the garden. You are just as likely however to bump into a reference to fishing or sailing.

    Above: "They are called Woodpaths." The carved lettering is only part of the poetry. It is entirely contextual and is incomplete without flowers, bird song, and the fall of light.

    Above: Finlay also relied on the help of the best stone masons and letter carvers. The succinct garden poems are a letter-carving dream.

    Above: Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in 1925 in Bermuda, where his father was a smuggler. Sent to boarding school in Scotland at the age of six, he kept his childhood fascination with toy sailing boats and maritime lore for the rest of his life.

    Above: The devil is in the detail, even on the exterior of the WC.

    Above: A visit to Little Sparta is to be a part of something which is "deeply personal and engaging," says Derek Brown. There were no trees at the beginning but with their maturity, and the aid of water and sculpture, Hamilton Finlay's vision of a durable garden has been realized. For hours and admission prices to visit the garden during spring and summer months, see Little Sparta.

    For more, see: Required Reading: Little Sparta, in Words and Pictures.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published January 21, 2013.

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    Just over a month ago, my older sister and her husband welcomed the tiniest, sweetest little boy into the world. He joined us a month earlier than expected, so after I got the phone call saying all systems were a go, I rushed to my neighborhood bodega and snatched up a cellophane-wrapped cone of purple hyacinths. I plopped them into a ball jar, added white ribbon, and hightailed it to my sister's side. A few days later, when I walked into the room to visit, I was accosted by the pungent odor of opening hyacinths. Maybe an entire bunch of the springtime staple was a bit much. Here's a better idea:

    Photographs by Erin Boyle.

    Since then, I've been thinking about a bouquet that I would prepare to celebrate a new baby if I was given a little bit of advance warning. Here's my take on a bouquet for a newborn: sweetly scented, soft, and subtle.

    I gathered supplies from a beautiful neighborhood flower shop just around the block from my apartment. I'm not a mother myself, but if there's one thing that being around a brand-new nephew has taught me, it's that folks are really into gender-specific colors. For a breath of fresh air amid all that bright blue and pink, I chose stems in soft shades fitting for any nursery.

    Above: At the risk of looking twee, I chose this tiny vintage baby bottle to make my bouquet. The opening was narrow, so I had to choose dainty stems that would fit in easily.

    Above: I didn't want this bouquet to have the overwhelming fragrance of an entire bunch of hyacinth, but I still liked the idea of a fragrant bouquet for a nursery. I chose two small stems of tuberose to do the heavy lifting.

    Above: Optical grass seemed like the right fit for a little brush of something delicate. Muscari echoed the shape of the tuberose and was fittingly tiny.

    Above: I couldn't imagine a bouquet for a baby without including a few leaves of velvety-soft dusty miller. No comparison to the softness of the baby himself, of course, but a good homage.

    Above: Finally, small cuts of deliciously fragrant jasmine seemed like the perfect complement to the sweet scent of the tuberose and added beautiful shape. I could talk for days about my love of jasmine. Italian rustica helped balance things out.

    I'm not a professional floral designer, but I like to play at being one. Whether I'm making a bouquet for myself or for a new baby, I'm especially drawn to collections of flowers that are left just a little bit unruly.

    I started by arranging the flowers in my hand—a trick my farmer-sister taught me when she made my wedding bouquet last summer—and only made a few tweaks after the stems were in the bottle.

    Above: A bow of rich moss-colored velvet ribbon seemed like the perfect accompaniment to the bouquet and was another welcome variation on the pink and blue theme.

    In the end, a tiny, fragrant bouquet for an equally sweet-smelling baby.

    Explore more: Bouquets for the Bath, Consider the Lilac, Bottle-Fed Paperwhites.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 28, 2013.

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    Much like animals, plants have character: some are prickly or spare, while others are jovial and grand. And then there's Mikado. Though small in stature, this wee plant has so much personality, it's practically a pet.

    Native to the swamps of Brazil, Mikado (or Syngonanthus chrysanthus) possesses a somewhat bizarre compilation of parts. Sprouting from a hedgehog-esque mound of foliage, long-necked stems produce golden buds, which then bloom into tiny, cotton-tail flowers. Somehow it all works though. In fact, Mikado's quirkiness only adds to its irresistible charm.

    Above: The Mikado is the irresistible little guy on the far right, on the window sill. Photograph by Electronomo via Flickr.

    Above: Perhaps the best home for the small, subtropical, moisture-loving Mikado is an Egg Base Terrarium from Terrain; on sale for $24.95.

    Above: Mikado plants in 3-inch pots are available at Hirt's House Plants; $7.99. Photo by Alex Lustre.

    Want to create your own house plant vignette? See Steal This Look: Isabel Wilson's House Plants.

    Above: A rare specimen indeed, Mikado's explosion of golden buds and white pompon blooms resembles a fireworks display. Photograph by Mareen Fischinger via Flickr.

    Above: As a subtropical plant, Mikado prefers growing conditions similar to its native habitat: light, acidic soil, high humidity (60 to 80 percent), and lots of sun. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's very thorough guidelines for growing Mikado, you can add moisture to the plant's environment by placing it on top of a shallow, water and gravel-filled tray. Image via Plant Systematics.

    Above: This member of the Eriocaulaceae family never grows very large, making it the perfect apartment plant. Photograph by Gavin of Yorkshire4.

    For ideas about interior design with plants, see Steal This Look: Isabel Wilson's House Plants.

    Looking for more plants with personality? Shop our Houseplant Picks.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 1, 2013.

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    Nature has wired us to feel protective of babies, with their oversized, floppy heads. The big, round leaves of a fiddle leaf fig tree make it the houseplant equivalent of a newborn. So it was probably inevitable that the fiddle leaf fig has become the latest "it" house plant—and that I fell in love with one (and that you will too, eventually) and wanted to bring it home. But can I keep it alive?

    At the plant store, I was told to keep it in indirect light. And to let the soil in its pot dry out completely before watering it. And to be careful when I transplanted it—"don't put it into a pot that feels too big or it will get freaked out," the plant store owner advised—and to sing it lullabies at night if it had trouble falling asleep. In other words, this was a finicky plant that needs a lot of, um, special attention. Great.

    As I drove home, I frowned at the 4-foot-tall native of West African lowland rain forests, sitting beside me in the passenger seat (should I have strapped it into a car seat?). It suddenly looked bigger than it had at the plant store. And yet somehow more delicate. Had I just spent $49 on a plant that was going to shrivel up and die in a week?

    There is no way I can simulate a rain forest experience in a humidity-free Northern California stucco bungalow. But there was a glimmer of hope. Indirect light? That I can do. Outside my kitchen windows, the neighbors' shrubs loom so high and thick that only watery green light seeps through the glass. 

    I pulled into the driveway and, hoping for the best, lugged the (heavier than I remembered) plant inside to sit next to the dishwasher. It looked pretty good there. Really filled the space. And maybe it would even thrive.

    But the next morning, when I went into the kitchen, the fiddle leaf tree was missing.

    Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.

    Fiddle leaf fig tree likes filtered light in kitchen via Gardenista

    "Have you seen my fiddle leaf fig tree?" I asked my husband, who was standing where I had last seen the plant.

    "Is that what that was?" my husband asked, not looking up from his iPhone. "It was in my spot, so I moved it."

    "Your spot?" I asked.

     "It was blocking the espresso machine," he said. "Plus, this is where I like to stand when I tweet."

    He tweets a lot.

    "I don't suppose you remember where you #movedit?" I asked.

    fiddle leaf fig tree care sunny growing tips via Gardenista

    I found the fiddle leaf fig tree in the living room. It looked a little forlorn standing against a wall, but at least it was shielded from the window by a curtain. I figured it would be safe there until I had time to figure out a permanent solution.

    "Isn't it cute?" I asked my husband. "Doesn't it look vulnerable and cuddly, like a baby if a baby had big round leaves instead of big round eyes?"

    "I like puppies better than babies," my husband said. 

    fiddle leaf fig leaf closeup via Gardenista

    That afternoon at 4 pm, disaster struck. Sunlight started streaming in through the window (southern exposure).  I had to move the plant.

    A fiddle leaf fig tree is not something you want to be carrying all over the house. It is unwieldy. Plus, with a skinny trunk and those floppy leaves, it looks like it could tip over at any minute if perfect balance is not maintained.

    And really? The kitchen was the best place for it. If only my husband and the plant could share #thespot.

    fiddle leaf fig tree Ikea rolling plant stand via Gardenista

    "It can be like a buddy film," I told him. "You and your pal the plant."

    We were standing in the kitchen, my husband and my plant and I. I had gone to Ikea and purchased a rolling plant stand called the Socker Plant Stand. It cost $5.99, was made of galvanized metal, and had three rubber wheels. I demonstrated how they worked.

    fiddle leaf fig tree in kitchen via Gardenista

    "See how easy it is to move the plant out of the way when you want to tweet or vacuum?" I asked.

    "Now I have to vacuum?" he said.

    fiddle leaf fig tree in family room via Gardenista

    The next morning I found the fiddle leaf fig tree in the family room.

    "It must have rolled itself over there," he suggested.

    fiddle leaf fig tree in bathroom window via Gardenista

    The next day, it was in the bathroom. It loomed large in there, hogging all the sink space.

    "It better not use my toothbrush," my husband said. 

    fiddle leaf fig tree growing tips and care via Gardenista

    Today is the fifth day we have had the fiddle leaf fig tree. I cannot tell yet if it likes it here or thinks that living in our house in Northern California feels anything at all like living in a West African lowlands rain forest.

    But I think my husband is getting attached to the plant. When I tracked it down this morning—it was back in the living room—I noticed someone had watered it. 

    It is only a matter of time before he starts telling it a story at bedtime.

    Wondering whether a fiddle leaf fig tree is the right house plant for you? See our earlier post Consider the Fiddle Leaf Fig.

    See more Fiddle Leaf Fig Trees in our Photo Gallery.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published August 26, 2013.

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    It is probably impossible, if you are an English professor, to look at a garden without thinking of John Keats' "fast-fading violets covered up in leaves" or "the coming musk-rose full of dewy wine"—or without longing for your own fragrant masses of old roses and white hawthorn. 

    But when Sophie Gee, a specialist in Restoration literature at Princeton, bought a Brooklyn townhouse nearly four years ago with her husband, Lev Grossman, the best-selling author of The Magicians, the backyard was not a space you'd expect anyone to immortalize in an ode. How to put it poetically? "It was a total wreck," says Gee. No more:

    Photographs by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.

    backyard hardscaping sophie gee brooklyn garden nicole franzen

    Above: After renovating the interior of the house, in early 2012 Gee turned her attention to the yard: weeds were cleared, a gigantic forsythia was removed, and bluestone pavers that had been laid roughly along the perimeter of the property were repositioned to create a patio and a garden path that divides the shady side from the sun.

    "Lev and I dug many, many bags of compost and peat moss into the bad Brooklyn soil in February while our 18-month-old toddled around in the dirt," says Gee. "We had to carry the bags through the house because it was the only way to get them to the garden."

    roses at sophie gee brooklyn garden nicole franzen

    Above: A year later, "watching it come together this spring was kind of amazing," says Gee, who strung wire across the fence to create a trellis to support the climbing roses.

    Urban Gardens

    Above: "This is the first garden I've gotten to do myself," says Gee, who grew up in Australia. "But I grew up with English gardens. Australians are very nostalgic for the European climate and English gardens, in particular, are sort of a gold standard for a certain group of Australian gardeners, including my mother."

    before photos of sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: A "Before" shot (L), features the unloving bluestone path and a few bedraggled hosta. The bluestone pavers were moved and augmented with additional matching stone to create a patio and center path (R).

    yellow roses sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: On the sunny side of the garden is a Golden Celebration rose. It can be grown as a shrub or trained as a climber; $25.95 from David Austin.

    "The sunny side is really only a 20-foot-square bit that gets true full sun. I had to cram all the 'full sun' in there," says Gee.

    pink rose sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: The couple's three children, who are ages 9, 3, and nine months, "really love the garden," says Gee. They splash around in a little wading pool and are learning the names of plants.

    perennials against a fence in sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: The Willow Cloches are from Williams-Sonoma Agrarian; a set of two is $49.95.

    "There were certain plants I really, really wanted to have, partly from reading about them in literature: peonies, old roses, bulbs," says Gee. I'm really passionate about columbines and wanted to have a lot of those. And the sort of trees that blossom."

    clematis sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: A clematis grows against the fence.

    shade perennials in sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: Hellebores thrive on the shady side of the garden.

    shady side sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: When Gee was designing the garden, "I spent a lot of time looking carefully at what the light was doing," she says. "It's quite a tricky garden for light. There’s a woodlands area towards the back where the native trees shade a great deal."

    In the woodlands, lady's mantle, variegated Solomon's seal, heuchera, and lilies grow together. 

    "I had a lovely moment when I was buying plants. I wanted lots of Solomon’s seal, and I went to the nursery and learned the non-variegated ones were really expensive, and I was talking to my mother who happened to be visiting about it," says Gee. "Then the woman who was helping us in nursery said, 'My whole yard is overrun with Solomon's seal and I’m about to dig them out, do you want them?' It was so exciting. She turned out to be a neighbor who lived around the corner, and she gave me plastic bags full. It was really lovely of her."

    shady perennials sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: A shady corner overseen by columbine (L).

    view from the house sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: "When we bought the house, the back wall on the parlor level where the kitchen is was filled in. Last year, we put beautiful windows there and a door and a deck, so now light just floods into the house," says Gee. "You have amazing views of the garden and it feels like being in the countryside a little bit."

    front stoop sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: Wisteria on the front stoop welcomes visitors to the house in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood.

    two roses kissing sophie gee garden brooklyn

    Above: "I go out into the garden every morning and every evening, and it’s completely, completely changed our lives having it," says Gee. "It's an amazing thing to have in an urban setting, the ability to watch things change and grow."

    For another recently transformed Brooklyn backyard, see How to Crowd Source a Garden: Throw a Party, Serve Brunch, and Hand Out Shovels.

    N.B.: This is is an update of a post published June 11, 2013 during our American Beauty week.

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    Drive west across San Francisco as far as possible, to the ocean; you can see the water from the end of the block. In the foggy Outer Sunset surfer district, restaurant owners Dave Muller and Lana Porcello built two potting sheds from wood scraps and old windows. You can too. Here's how to recreate the look:

    Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.

    Above: Much of the harvest ends up on the menu at the couple's nearby Outerlands restaurant. The key to the design was to be flexible, to accommodate the size and shape of available materials. Builder Jay Nelson helped design both greenhouse sheds and then constructed them, as well, using salvaged redwood and Douglas fir and reclaimed windows. Much of the material came from San Francisco's Building REsources, a non-profit scrap yard and salvage store.

    Vintage windows came from nearby Sunset Glass. "These were windows they didn't think they could re-sell," says Porcello.

    Above: inside the large shed, wooden wall mounted planters have slanted sides to help with drainage and to reduce the weight of the soil, says Porcello, adding, "But it was largely an aesthetic decision, to give visibility and a cascading effect to the plants."

    Above: Made of solid wood and screwed together for stability, a Cedar Wood Wall Mounted Planter Box (L) is available in two lengths, at prices ranging from $50.52 to $52.68 (minimum order size is six planters) from Wood Things. A 22-pound bag of Polished Black Garden Rocks (rock size ranges from 2 to 3 inches) will cover 1.25 square feet at a depth of 2 inches; available for $21.90 per bag from Stone Decorative. (Porcello buys rocks and bags of organic potting soil from Sloat Gardens a few blocks from her house.)

    Above: Simple latches, hooks, and hinges came from a local hardware store.

    Above: For a similar hook, a three-pack of Hillman Group Screw Hooks is $1.18 from Lowe's.

    Above: A similar selection of potted herb plants is a 6-Pack Fragrant Herb Collection in 4-inch pots; $28.95 from Williams-Sonoma Agrarian.

    Above: Porcello stores supplies, seedlings and potted succulents on slatted wooden shelves that drain onto the bed of river rocks.

    For our favorite potting benches, see 10 Easy Pieces: Potting Benches.

    Above: A similar Crassula Potted Plant (L) is $6.99 from Ikea. A Flotbad Plant Pot with a drain hole in the bottom is $7.99 from Ikea.

    Above: Sloat Gardens, which has several locations in the Bay Area, sells Glazed Pots(L) made by the Ow family in Malaysia. For more information, see Sloat. A Malaysian Glazed Cloche Pot (R), available in three sizes from Fleet Farm, is $15.99.

    Above: Porcello keeps a folding wood ladder in a corner to make it easy to reach the highest row of plant boxes. A similar 6 Ft. Wood Step Ladder is $63.99 from Cornell Hardware.

    Above: Above: The second shed has six windows but no door. The greenhouse glass roof is constructed of multiple salvaged window panes.

    Above: Two pots of oxalis peek out from beneath the firewood. Eight varieties of Oxalis (False Shamrock) are available, for $12 per plant, from Plant Delights.

    Above: A V&O Little Camper Brass Trim Oil Lantern is $14.99 from Amazon.

    Above: The glass roofs create a greenhouse effect that makes herbs thrive year round.

    For more of Muller and Porcello's house, see An Urban Surf Shack in San Francisco.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published November 9, 2012.

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    I have only good memories of walk-in closets, except for the time I was rummaging around in the back of one—and suddenly came across a high-top sneaker with two kittens sitting in it.

    It was a charming scene really, with one tiny kitten gnawing on a shoelace and the other batting at his brother with a fuzzy paw, unless you stopped to consider the cold facts of the situation. My closet was so stuffed with clothing that I hadn't noticed when my cat gave birth to a litter in there several weeks earlier.

    How do closets get so overcrowded? How does a pair of blue jeans you had in college manage to surreptitiously elude the Salvation Army dragnet for decades to follow you as you move across the country, back and forth and back again, to each new walk-in closet?

    Yet. When I remodeled my house last year, No. 1 on my wish list was a walk-in closet. Less than nine months later, the closet is already a shambles. By last week, every time I tried to walk in, a stray shoe would trip me. The sleeves from blouses were twining themselves, anaconda style, around my neck.

    It was time to clean out the closet, drastically and once-and-for-all. I was sick of feeling as if my clothes owned me. I came up with a new strategy: define the season's wardrobe as minimally as possible—I pared down to ten pieces—and put everything else into organized deep storage. I know ten pieces sounds pretty draconian. But if you look at a weather map, you'll see most of us live in climates defined by three-month stretches that don't vary that much. And more minimal is always more peaceful.

    My ten essential pieces include jeans, black pants, khaki pants, a knit dress, a pencil skirt, two collared shirts, a cardigan, a blazer, and a white tee shirt. Here's how to pare down your closet to your own personal ten essential pieces:

    Have you ever whittled your wardrobe to a few key items? Tell us about it in the comment section below:

    Photographs by Zoe Quittner except where noted.

    organize closet michelle domestic dispatches 10 pieces of clothing you need

    Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

    Step No. 1: Confront your closet. Can you even see what's in there? Start the cleanout by reaching in to grab every piece of clothing you love. Note: If you hesitate over an item, for even a second, you don't love it.

    Place the clothes you love on your bed. Arrange the articles by type: jeans, pants, shirts, etc.

    closet cleaning, michelle domestic dispatches

    Step No. 2: Examine the items on the bed to see if a theme emerges. Is everything blue? Perhaps you chose clothes sewn only from comfortable fabrics. Did you choose only your best-fitting pair of jeans? Did you leave all the skirts in the closet?

    By examining the clothes you love in a vacuum—that is, without the rest of your wardrobe surrounding them and clamoring for attention—you will see a pattern. Maybe you like striped shirts best. Or maybe you really only feel comfortable in black. Next time you are on the verge of a purchase, think back to this moment: how would the new piece you are considering fit in with your favorites?

    Step No. 3: Make outfits. How many different ways can you mix key pieces to create different looks? Lay out as many ensembles as possible. (Power user tip: snap photos with your phone of each outfit; when you wake up tomorrow morning and can't decide what to wear, you can remind yourself of the possibilities.)

    Step No. 4: Edit. Are there favorite pieces that didn't make the cut when you were putting together outfits? Take them off the bed.

    penny loafers from Ralph Lauren domestic dispatches michelle closet

    Above: Photograph via Ralph Lauren.

    Step No. 5: Pick and choose. Ask yourself: Is there essential piece missing? If you go back to your closet to get a particular jacket or shirt or pair of pants you now regret leaving behind, will that article of clothing enable you to create several more outfits? If so, grab it.

    Do you need a pair of the cutest rain boots in existence? See The Ultimate Garden Boots. But I digress.

    clean and organize closet michelle domestic dispatches

    Step No. 6: Repair, replace buttons, and iron every piece of clothing that needs attention. If an item doesn't fit properly, take it to the tailor; shorten the sleeves, nip in the waist, lift a hemline to the most flattering length. If you don't want to make that investment, get rid of the piece. Trust me, it doesn't look good on you.

    N.B.: Looking for more tips for caring for your clothes? See Expert Advice: 10 Wardrobe Maintenance Essentials.

    Step No. 7: Take everything else out of your closet and put it in deep storage. Organize these pieces by season when you pack them away. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a backup closet in a guest room where you can store it for now. If not, get some squish bags; with vacuum-sealed Space Bags ($9.99 for a package of two from Container Store) you can suck the air out of the bag to store more clothes in a small space. (Three months from now, pull out clothing and pick your favorites for the next season.)

    organize closet 10 pieces of clothing you need michelle domestic dispatches shoes and sweaters

    Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

    Step No. 8: Edit your favorites. Which were the ten key pieces you used most often to create outfits? Put those back in your closet, on hangers or shelves where they are most visible and accessible.

    cedar wood hanger for closet from crate and barrel

    Above: A four-pack of Basic Cedar Shirt Hangers is $9.90 from Container Store.

    Fold the rest of your favorites and if you are very brave, give them the squish bag treatment as well. If the thought of that gives you hives, put this second tier of favorites in the back of your closet; you can access them, but only in an emergency.

    Do you need more shelving? For some of our mix-and-match modular units, see Stage An Intervention With Stylish Shelves.

    clean out closet domestic dispatches

    Step No. 9: Wear your ten favorite pieces, in as many combinations as possible, for a week. See how that feels. If things are going well, try a second week. If you are missing a key piece, pull it out of the back of the closet; it's not the end of the world if you wear 11 essential pieces of clothing.

    Step No. 10: Shoes, handbags, and accessories. This proved harder for me than culling clothes. I love shoes, and have many pairs. For the season, I pared down to three pairs: black flats, black heels, and espadrilles. (I also have a pair of running shoes, but running shoes are ugly and therefore don't count as a pair of shoes.) I winnowed handbags to two—a neutral colored bag with a shoulder strap and a tote big enough to hold my laptop. As for belts? One skinny, one wide.

    I took three pairs of off-season shoes to the cobbler to get new heels and soles, and stored off-season handbags in cloth bags to protect them.

    It is now Day 3, post-cleanout. It feels pretty good. I am wearing the same jeans and the same shirt I would have been wearing even if my closet were still stuffed full of clothes. The challenge, I can see, is going to be keeping fewer items looking good: with more ironing, frequent laundering, and fewer stains from messy sandwiches eaten at my desk.

    As for my closet? God, an almost-empty closet looks beautiful and so very serene. Not that I have anything against kittens.

    Are you wondering what wardrobe essentials to pack for an out-of-town trip? See Style Counsel: Heidi Swanson's Travel Kit.

    N.B.: This post was published April 22, 2013 as part of our Spring Cleaning week.

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    The sound of peacocks crowing in the English countryside is a sign that a parallel world exists nearby. Those who keep peacocks have no regard for the sleep quality of their neighbors, or better still, they have no neighbors.

    Peacocks roam freely at Rousham, in Oxfordshire. It is a mini republic with its cottages, farm, and church, still lived in by the family who built it almost 400 years ago. The intensely individual atmosphere of the garden has made it a favorite with garden designers such as Arne Maynard, for whom it is a touchstone for inspiration. At the beginning of a landscaping commission he will organize a visit and gauge the response to this special place:

    "It's a good way to gather information about your clients," says Maynard.

    Photographs by Kendra Wilson.

    Rousham in the Cotswolds; designers' favorite. Gardenista

    Above: Designed by William Kent in the mid 1800s, the gardens at Rousham have not been altered or changed noticeably, escaping the general upheaval caused by Capability Brown a generation later.

    "Kent didn't fiddle with the landscape," says Arne Maynard. "He created a true sense of place."

    (Get an insider's tour Arne Maynard's private garden in Arne Maynard at Home in Wales.)

    William Kent arcade at Rousham, Cotswolds. Gardenista

     Above: Rousham is not a flowery garden. It is green and wooded, with the River Cherwell running through it. Primroses sprout from the rough grass because they are happy there. Narrow tracks, resembling those made by sheep, lead you onward, without telling you where to go. There are no signs and no crowds. It's bliss.

    On entering the stable block at Rousham (built by the multi-talented Kent, who also added wings to the house), one is greeted by a ticket machine and a notice: “This is a private garden. No children under 15.” You are not encouraged to enter the garden via the gift shop because there isn't one.

    Primrose growing out of the Octagonal Pond, Rousham. Gardenista

     Above: Primroses hanging on to the edge of the Octagon Pond. According to Arne Maynard, William Kent saw the whole landscape as part of the garden, both sharing the same palette. There are many viewing points of the Cherwell meandering through the lower part of the garden; Kent's Arcade overlooks the scene and is punctuated with carved benches under a series of domes, for gazing on a landscape in which it is not always obvious where the garden ends and the fields begin.

    Rill at Rousham, favorite garden of Arne Maynard. Gardenista

     Above: Much is made of the contrast between bright light and deep shade at Rousham. With no arrows or signs, shady walks and tunnels draw you around, with their pockets of light. The Long Walk, with a statue of Apollo silhouetted at the end, is over-arched by beech and yew, with the proportions of a cathedral nave. Somehow it is cut that way, or are the trees just cooperating?

    Woodland pool at Rousham known as The Cold Bath. Gardenista

    Above: The Watery Walk follows a rill, meandering through a wood and linking the Octagonal Pool to the Cold Bath. The pools could not be more plain, in modern geometric shapes.

    Temple of Echo by Kent and Townsend, Rousham. Gardenista

     Above: The Gothic follies and mock temples in the garden at Rousham somehow lack pomposity. They completely sidestep the grandeur and hubris expected from a mock temple. “There is nothing ornamental in this garden,” says Arne Maynard. “It's very simple and pure.”

    20 foot thick yew hedge separating the bowling green from the walled garden, Rousham. Gardenista

    Above: The striped bowling green in front of the house is separated from the walled kitchen garden by a wall of yew. The tunnel through the yew wall, shown here, is 20 feet deep. Everywhere in this area the house and stables are visible: the working parts of the garden are closer to the house than the pleasure gardens. Later architects preferred to place the kitchen garden as far away from the house as possible.

    17th century Pigeon House at Rousham, Cotswolds. Gardenista

     Above: Rousham is full of difficult choices. Should one turn right, toward the Pigeon House from 1685 and its "small parterre," or should one turn left?

    Ancient pear tree at Rousham, Cotswolds. Gardenista

    Above: Here the vast walled garden beckons with its gnarled espaliers and the only flower borders you will find at Rousham. One will lead you to the other if you don't lose your head.

    Old bicycle by glasshouse and potting shed area, Rousham. Gardenista

    Above: Rousham is proud to be different and a huge part of its appeal is an absolute refusal to pander to anybody. The owners describe the garden as "uncommercial and unspoilt," but it is clear through the atmosphere of the place that they are not curmudgeonly and might even enjoy sharing. As they state in the leaflet: "Bring a picnic, wear comfortable shoes and it is yours for the day."

    For more atmosphere, see The Walled Garden at Kelmarsh Hall.

    N.B.: This is an update of a post published April 23, 2013 as part of our Spring Cleaning week.

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