Back-to-School Action Plan: Homework Zone

Encourage your child to love learning with a comfortable, organized and age-appropriate study area

By Laura Gaskill  |  Courtesy of

What with the new teachers, shifting schedules and sudden onslaught of paper, the back-to-school transition can be challenging for parents and kids alike. Manage the chaos by putting an action plan in place to handle some of your home’s hot spots — including a spot to study — and you (and your kids) can step into the new school year feeling prepared. The following tips will help you set up a homework zone for your scholars, whether they’re entering kindergarten or applying to college.


Supporting your scholar. The needs of a kindergartener and those of a tween may seem miles apart when it comes to study space, but there are a few things that hold true for all kids:

  • Pick a place where your child feels comfortable to set up a homework zone. If he or she loves being in the heart of things, this may be the kitchen table.
  • Keep supplies close at hand. If children have to hunt for that glue stick or report cover, the whole process will feel more frustrating.
  • Feel free to create a separate zone for reading. No matter your child’s age, it’s often more comfortable to read in an upholstered chair than in a stiff desk chair.

Younger Children

What to expect: The focus for preschoolers and kindergarteners should be on cultivating a love of learning. A cozy nook for reading (or being read to) and a project table for practicing cutting, drawing and writing are all that’s needed. A clean, inviting space like the one shown here encourages children to explore good books without offering an overwhelming number of choices


Homework-zone tips for younger children: 

  • Using child-height tables and chairs helps preschoolers and kindergarteners feel ownership over their work area.
  • Younger kids sometimes have a hard time if there’s too much on the table at once. Keeping extras stocked on shelves above the table or on a portable cart will help avoid spills and make it easier to focus on the task at hand.
  • Keep an eye on the clock: If your kindergartener gets homework, be sure to ask the teacher how long it’s expected to take, and don’t force your child to work past that amount of time. At this age, it’s better to keep the homework routine short and positive!

School-Age Kids

What to expect: As kids progress through elementary school, they’ll gradually be asked to take on more responsibility (and likely more homework too). This is when organization and time management begin to come into play — and having a well-organized homework space can help.


Homework-zone tips for school-age kids:

  • Homework in elementary school can involve a mix of reading and writing with creative projects, so be sure to store some art supplies along with the No. 2 pencils.
  • Decide on a system for keeping track of homework papers, and stick with it: A simple inbox and outbox (or labeled “in” and “out” clipboards fastened to the wall) should do the trick.
  • Designate a roomy document box or bin where you can store completed schoolwork and projects. Aim to sort through it with your child once a month, choosing a few special pieces to keep and recycling the rest.
  • Let your child add photos, artwork and special treasures to personalize their study space.

Working at the dining table? Read this. Kids in elementary school often feel more at home doing homework at the kitchen counter or dining table, where they can chat with you (and sprawl out) as they work. If that’s the case for your child, there are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Ideally, your child shouldn’t have to clear away work in progress when it’s time for dinner. If that’s impossible, try to find a nearby surface that can be kept clear so there’s a place to hold your child’s supplies.
  • Consider using a cart on wheels to hold homework supplies. That way, your child can pull it up while working and tuck it away at mealtime.
  • If your child just wants to be in the same room, see if you can find a nook to put a desk in the kitchen or dining room, to avoid the cleanup issue.

DIY treat-stand supply tray. If you have a rarely used treat stand gathering dust in a cupboard, consider pulling it out and putting it to work as a handy homework supply station. Simply fill each level with cups (recycled cans and jars work well) filled with pencils, crayons, scissors and other supplies, and set it near your child’s homework area. A caddy like this is especially helpful for kids who like to work in the kitchen or dining room, since it can be picked up and put aside when it’s time to set the table.


Tweens and Teens

What to expect: With a heavier workload at school, more responsibilities at home and after-school commitments, middle school and high school kids have a lot on their plates. Even though they may be taller than you now, tweens and teens can still use your support — and setting up a comfy spot to work is a good first step.


Homework-zone tips for tweens and teens: 

  • Using a laptop or the family computer likely will be a necessity for doing schoolwork in the tween and teen years, so consider where you want this to happen. Especially for younger tweens, you may want to have the family computer in a main living space for greater supervision.
  • With teens’ increased workload, the system that has worked until now for keeping track of homework and schedules may no longer cut it. Help them experiment until they find a system they like to use: This could be a paper planner, an app or lots of Post-its — whatever works!

Stay on top of paper clutter. Once teens have multiple subjects to manage, paper clutter seems to expand exponentially. The built-in storage compartments of a desk hutch (like the one seen here) can help keep lots of paper neatly organized, making this a good choice for pack rats and organization junkies alike. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Use stacking paper trays to keep track of to-dos and finished work
  • Assign a hanging file to each subject and keep important papers inside.
  • Reduce paper and keep track of things digitally with an online system like Google Drive.

More than one kid sharing a space? Consider study partitions. Make sharing a study space easier on all involved by providing a desk with a partition between work areas. In the space shown here, the entire desk unit is built into a closet, so when the kids are done working, the doors can hide it all away.

How to Right-Size Your Garden and Simplify Your Life

Rethink your planting space to fit your needs and you'll learn just how much garden is enough

By Susan Tweit July 28, 2017 | Courtesy of

Life changes often mean many adjustments, including to the garden. Perhaps you’ve maintained a large property and now are moving to something smaller. Maybe a job transfer has relocated you to a city and, instead of a yard, you have only a patio or balcony for a garden space. Or it may just be time to tweak your current landscape as your needs change. 

Keep reading to learn what’s important to consider when reimagining your space for new circumstances. Also included here are tips for designing a right-size garden for maximum impact — one that’s tailored just for you.

1. What are your garden values? Rethinking what will make a garden work for you means first ascertaining what says “garden” to you. Then find the sweet spot between dreams and the space parameters.

First ask yourself to think about what kind of garden you imagine. Are you gardening to enjoy edibles? To attract pollinators and songbirds? Purely for aesthetic pleasure? 

Then consider how you will use the garden. Is your garden a private sanctuary? A public entertaining space? A combination?

Write up a short list of favorite, or must-have, plants. Add favorite color combinations and shapes. Don’t forget hardscape — garden elements such as shade structures, water features and patios.

2. Think about what you have to work with. Once you know your garden values, it’s time to evaluate your site. Start by collecting data. How big is your area? Walk the space and measure it. Use a hose to outline garden areas, or draw outlines on the ground with spray paint. 

Consider your time, budget and physical abilities. How much time do you want to spend, or can you spend, on your garden? How much money do you want to spend on planting and future maintenance? 

Are you starting from scratch or modifying existing landscaping? Make sure to identify any problem areas that will need extra work, whether that’s drainage issues, decaying hardscape or plantings that will need replacement. 

Now it’s time to plan your right-size garden. Here are some ideas for small spaces, all of which easily can be scaled up or down.

3. Make a statement with a few bold plants — as long as they don’t overwhelm or outgrow the space. Just a few plants can make a big impact. Choose what’s suited to your new space. Don’t plant a full-size spruce tree in a patio container. On the other hand, don’t be too timid either. 

In the small front-entry garden space shown here, a concrete planter built into a set of curving stairs on a steep slope contains Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, USDA zones 5 to 9; find your zone). The medium-size evergreen Western native shrub softens the hard angles of the concrete and gives presence to the small space without overwhelming it. 

Around that shrub is a drift of native annual wildflowers, one of which has rooted in the crack between the stairs and concrete wall. This bit of volunteer landscaping adds a touch of playfulness to an otherwise formal space. 

That planter is the entire front garden of this hillside house, and it’s just enough.

4. Small changes can have big effects. It doesn’t take much to change the look and feel of a landscape. In this garden the clients wanted to add pollinator plants to a lawn in the front yard while retaining the character of the historic neighborhood. 

The designer removed lawn at the base of the small front porch and put in a curving perennial bed featuring native wildflowers and grasses that will flower over the course of the season and attract hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees. To round out that bed, the designer cooled and brightened up the hot and dry stretch next to the sidewalk and parking strip with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, zones 5 to 9) and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, zones 5 to 9), underplanted with daffodils. 

The clients enjoy the new gardens so much that they are considering replacing more of the lawn with plants that nurture pollinators.

5. A few containers on a deck or balcony can transform the space. Containers can make a garden. The trick lies in choosing the right plants and the right containers. Container size is critical: Choose the biggest ones you can afford and that will fit in your space. Small containers mean a small soil volume, which means they dry out quickly and may need watering multiple times a day. That’s hard on plants and gardeners. Choose containers that go with the style, materials and color of the location. The client for this garden wanted to add color to a modern, industrial-style steel deck. The clean lines of the ceramic containers complement the deck design and are in colors that echo those of the house. 

Use potting soil enriched with plenty of organic matter like aged compost, and add water-holding and inert silicon crystals for the best moisture retention in any size container. Also, choose plants that will thrive in containers. A full-size tree will never be happy in a container, for instance, because it needs a rooting space as large as its canopy; a dwarf tree would be a better choice. 

The plants in this container garden were chosen specifically to attract hummingbirds and require little watering. They include several hyssops (Agastachespp.), Sunset crater beardtongue (Penstemon clutei, zones 4 to 8), and gaura(Gaura lindheimeri, zone 5), plus little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, zones 2 to 9) and prairie sagewort (Artemisia frigida, zones 3 to 10) for foliage interest.

6. Containers can produce significant amounts of edibles. This photo shows an entire kitchen garden, including both perennial and annual herbslettuceand pot-greens, beans and peasbroccolicarrots and tomatoes, all in containers. Look for varieties of edible plants specifically bred for containers, including squashes, tomatoes and others that normally need larger spaces. 

Containers are ideal for right-sizing an edible garden because they easily can be configured to fit limited or odd-shaped spaces. And they can sit on balconies, decks or patios (assuming raised structures can support the considerable weight of soil, container and plants). 

Sizable containers offer the benefits of raised beds, elevating soil and plants to a comfortable height for planting, weeding and harvest, and offer some protection against grazers, including squirrels and rabbits. Containers also constrain plants likely to spread, such as raspberries or mint. They allow for different watering and feeding “zones” for plants with different requirements separated by container.

Consider unusual containers. Galvanized metal stock tanks or watering troughs, for instance, work well for larger plants or garden areas. (Make sure any container has sufficient drainage to avoid water-logged soil.) I’ve successfully grown full-size heritage tomato plants in stock tanks, along with other edibles not normally suited to container gardening, including raspberries, rhubarb and asparagus.

Browse outdoor pots and planters

7. Right-sizing can lead to more useful and more pleasing spaces. Rethinking a space can inspire creative solutions. This photo shows a front yard “sitting patio” plus pollinator garden that replaced an unused and weedy front lawn. 

The clients wanted a more intimate space from their small front yard, a conventional lawn-bordered-with-foundation-shrubs landscaping scheme that was basically wasted space. Their requests: a place to sit on summer mornings or winter afternoons (the yard faces south), habitat for pollinators and songbirds and a path for pedestrians and cyclists going directly from the street to their front door. 

The design begins with a low mound near the street side of the yard for visual separation. The mound was landscaped with colorful perennials specifically chosen to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees. A curving brick pathway winds diagonally through the yard behind the mound to the front door. The path widens into two seating areas, one shaded and one sunny. The lawn is gone. 

The project transformed an unloved front yard into an intimate and cozy space. The clients report seeing the first hummingbirds and butterflies as the plants were going into the ground. They’ve also met many of their neighbors, who have stopped by to admire the re-designed space.

8 Ways to Create a Neighborly Front Yard

8. Water features add serenity. A smaller space can mean more noise and distraction from beyond the garden. Adding a water feature can be the perfect remedy. 

Water features can be as small as the 5-gallon glazed pot in this photo, which is home to a single showstopping dwarf waterlily. That mini-pond is soothing on the corner of a deck next to a busy downtown area. Galvanized stock tanks and other larger containers also can be used for small pond-like water features. 

For the tranquil sound of running water in a small space, consider a stand-alone recirculating fountain or a wall fountain. Either will need an outdoor plug for the pump or a solar panel for sustainable and portable power generation. 

“Right-sizing” a garden doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the pleasures and benefits that come with growing and tending your favorite plants. By prodding us to rethink our gardens, smaller spaces can offer more of what gardening gives us: beauty, fresh food, the benefits of nurturing nature nearby and the joy of hanging out with plants and their community of lives.

Find outdoor fountains and ponds

Summer Projects That Will Give You Good Return on Investment

By Sarah Landrum | June 23, 2017 | Courtesy of 

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

You don't have to do a total renovation to increase the value of your home. Simple home improvement projects — like landscaping, new doors or shutters, or just a new paint job — can do wonders, majorly transforming the look of your house and bumping up its value.


It's well-agreed that boosting your home's curb appeal will pay off when it's time to sell — though estimates range from 100 to 1,000 percent ROI. Regardless of the exact numbers, it's clear: You'll likely get out more than what you put in. Realtor.comhas some ideas, ranging from weeding and maintenance to planting trees (which almost always add value).


A freshly painted home can get you a 5 to 10 percent premium when you go to sell. It's a no-brainer to paint over those rooms that are scuffed or really need it, but if you're looking to sell in the near future, you can also use paint to appeal to buyers and command a higher sale price for your home. For instance, a recent study from Zillow found that blue is a color likely to bump up the selling price of a space.

Decks and Patios

If you were thinking about getting a deck, patio or porch already, good news: It offers a 90.3 percent average return. You also get a good return if you revamp the deck you already have. You want to make sure all the boards, railings and stairs look sharp and are in safe working order. No one wants a deck that looks like a hazard to have their kids around. And adding things like lighting, planters and gates can up the value even more.

New Doors

Both garage door and entry door replacements have a high return on investment, at 80.7 percent and 98 percent, respectively. Spicing these up can increase the curb appeal over traditional, drab doors. It'll give your place something unique that other homes won't have.

‘Game of Thrones’ Style Touches for the House

Whether you live in Westeros or West Hollywood, these 9 grand features will make you feel like royalty

By Bryan Anthony | Courtesy of

On Sunday, July 16, 2017, HBO’s Game of Thrones returns to television screens for an all-too-short seventh season. If you want the wonders of Westeros to last all year, consider surrounding yourself with decor fit for King’s Landing. The lands of Westeros and beyond may be fictional, but the designs featured in the show can be found right here on Earth. Here are nine elements that would bring Seven Kingdoms style to your home.

1. Divans. In Roman times, a triclinium was the name for a formal dining room, which often contained low, backless sofas or divans that guests reclined on to eat their meals. Here we see Varys sitting on a divan while offering his wise counsel.

Today, divans are much more likely to be found in living rooms than dining rooms. But as this traditional living room in New York City shows, they still make a sophisticated seating option. Also, since divans typically have no backs, large items like this ornate mirror can be placed behind them.

2. Partners desks. A large desk that can comfortably accommodate two people is a great option for business partners or, in the case of Cersei and Jaime Lannister, uncomfortably close siblings.

Here we see an antique partners desk in a grand wood-paneled office in Dallas. Whether used with a partner or not, a large desk like this provides ample space for functional and decorative items, such as table lamps and objets d’art.

3. Tables with decanters. When walking around a room planning out your next move, as Tyrion Lannister is known to do, you can pause at a small table topped with a decanter to refill a glass with your favorite libation.

Even if you’re not scheming to take your rightful seat on the Iron Throne, a table topped with decanters is still a lovely amenity. This elegant living room includes a small round table topped with a trio of crystal decanters offering a selection of liquors.

4. Standing candelabra. Standing branched candlesticks were like floor lamps before electricity. When candles were the main option for illuminating a room, the ways to display them ranged widely. Sconces, candelabra and decorative lanterns filled with candles all were commonly used to light up a space.

Today, incorporating a standing candelabrum is still an elegant way to add old-world charm to a home. Here we see an ornate metal example that has been wired for an electric candle.

5. Stone fireplaces. Whether one lives in rugged Winterfell or refined Highgarden, a stone fireplace is a standard necessity for heating homes and cooking throughout Westeros.

This original stone fireplace is in a restored 18th-century farmhouse in Philadelphia. A large stone hearth still creates an inspired focal point in any style of home, especially when winter is coming.

6. Soaking tubs. Since showers have yet to appear on Game of Thrones, it seems safe to assume that a soaking tub, such as this wood one, is about as good as it gets when it comes to bathing in the Seven Kingdoms.

Although some homeowners forgo tubs in their bathrooms today, a free-standing one is still a desirable amenity for many. This chic wood soaking tub in Nashville, Tennessee, harks back to an earlier time, but with the convenience of modern plumbing, there’s no need to fill it up with buckets of steaming water.

7. Rooftop terraces. In arid Dorne, in the southernmost region of Westeros, a rooftop terrace filled with potted plants and living walls brings in lush greenery and provides shade from the sun.

imilarly, in an urban high-rise with no yard, a rooftop terrace like this one in London is often the only place to create a lush garden escape.

8. Courtyard fountains. A romantic tryst in a courtyard garden is a scene that has played out more than a few times on Game of Thrones. And often an ornate stone fountain is somewhere nearby. Perhaps that’s because the sound of running water can conceal those whispered sweet nothings from eavesdroppers.

This Dallas property was completed in 2012, but the craftsmanship and custom details evident in the courtyard’s hand-carved stone fountain provide a timeless feel and a romantic vibe still apt to beckon young lovers.

9. Reflecting pools. These shallow pools of water originated in ancient Persian gardens, but they’re now found throughout the world. They range from birdbath size to that of grand civic features like the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.

This reflecting pool on an estate on Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka provides a sense of serene grandeur fit for the Queen of Dragons. 

Spark Wonder in the Garden With These Family-Friendly Ideas

Entice kids outdoors with plenty of things to discover, fruits to taste and secret spots to explore

By Lauren Dunec Hoang  | Courtesy of

With interactive touches and sprinkles of whimsy, you can transform your garden into a place that engages and delights kids (and adults too). These 12 ideas — including involving the little ones in the magic of growing a plant from seed, incorporating play spaces and building in “secret” hideaways — could spark a deep, long-lasting interest in the outdoors.

1. Create places to discover. Even in a relatively narrow side yard, there’s an opportunity to conceal areas of the garden from view and create an enticing destination. Kids love hidden nooks — like a pathway curving around a corner or a clearing under a canopy tree — and these make a garden more interesting from a design perspective. 

In this garden in Angers, France, the leafy vines curving around the path and hidden area behind the corner of the building add a sense of mystery and make a stroll down the walkway feel like entering a secret garden.

2. Add a kid-friendly element to grown-up areas. Sitting through meals can be tedious for fidgety kids. Use an outdoor setting to your advantage by positioning kid-friendly garden elements like a swing or hammock close by — giving kids something to do and adults the opportunity to relax. 

In this English garden, for example, a swing hung from the beams of a shade pergola next to an outdoor dining table gives children an activity while parents can linger and enjoy the meal.

3. Try starting seeds. Few things are as simple yet awe-inspiring as sticking a seed in soil, having a sprout emerge a week or so later and then seeing it grow into a full-scale plant. Introduce kids of any age to the magic of seed-starting by having them help out. Kids will enjoy filling seed trays with soil, poking holes in the soil with a small stick or their fingers, dropping seeds in and gently covering the seeds with soil. Larger seeds like sunflowersbeans and pumpkin are easy for small hands and germinate quickly.

4. Start a vegetable garden. If you’re replanting your edible garden or starting one for the first time, invite kids to be involved every step of the way. Most kids enjoy being helpful (and playing in the dirt at the same time). Take the kids with you to the nursery to pick out seed packets or plant starts for vegetables or herbs and have them choose a few to try. At home, let kids assist in planting, weeding, watering and harvesting for family meals. An added bonus: Kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve helped grow.


5. A project of their own. Have kids take ownership over a certain garden project, like creating plant labels for the vegetable garden or weekly watering of a small raised bed. Kids will feel as if they’ve had a hand in the garden and will learn valuable gardening skills along the way, such as the names of plants and how much water they need to thrive.

6. Plant something sweet. Have plenty of tree fruits, berries and other kid favorites growing in your yard for children to pick on their own. Think of tasty fruits as a sweet way to lure kids outdoors. Once they discover which plants produce which fruit and when they’re ripe, you’ll hardly need to offer additional encouragement to set indoor toys and video screens aside and go outside. 

Low-growing strawberries are particularly good for younger kids as they are easy to reach, immediately recognizable when ripe and on thorn-free plants. Slightly older kids might enjoy blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries and tree fruits of all kinds.

7. Grow a bean teepee. A kid-friendly classic for edible gardens, a bean teepee is effectively a structure that provides a trellis for vines and an outdoor playroom for children. Turn a trellis into a teepee by arranging bamboo stakes in a circle — with a section left out as an entrance — and securing the stakes at the top with garden twine. Plant beans, sweet peas or other climbers around the outside of the teepee and train them to grow up the sides.

8. Create a leafy hideaway out of willow branches. Kids love forts of all shapes and sizes as play spots in the backyard. Willow branches are some of the most forgiving building materials for natural forts, with bendy branches and the ability for cut stems to root when stuck in soil. 

To re-create a fort like the one shown here, arrange willow posts 6 to 12 inches apart in a circle, driving the bottoms into the ground and arching the tops to form a dome of branches. Secure the structure in place with garden twine or wire and tuck in branches as they begin to emerge. Willows thrive with plenty of water, so keep soil moist, particularly while branches are rooting (before leaves have emerged).

9. Create a natural jungle gym. Instead of adding hardscape for a ball court or play structure, make an equally engaging play space out of natural materials. The designer of this Northern California backyard used a sheet of corrugated metal curled into a giant pipe to create a kid-friendly grass tunnel. The addition of wood flooring to the metal tube and a plastic skylight make the interior of the tunnel more inviting. 

Alternatively, have your children construct a fort out of garden materials like cut branches, bamboo stakes or leftovers from building projects.

10. Welcome wildlife. Teach children about the wild creatures that share the garden with us. These include birds, squirrels, frogs, lizards, butterflies and other insects, and — if you’re close to open space — rabbits, foxes and deer. Have kids help put out bird seed, add nectar to the hummingbird feeder and keep birdbaths filled with fresh water. Watch to see who arrives, and challenge kids to identify the species (with the help of a field guide).

Plant pollinator-friendly flowers or hang an insectary to welcome bees, butterflies and other insects.

11. Create multiple outdoor rooms. Landscapes divided into multiple-use areas are often more dynamic spaces, both for kids and adults. This garden in Austin, Texas, for example, has plenty of activities for everyone in the family, with an outdoor kitchen, edible garden, greenhouse, chicken coop, compost pile and spots for hanging out and relaxing. Kids would want to investigate the different areas of the garden — perhaps pinching a tomato or two from the kitchen garden, checking for eggs in the chicken coop, or running their fingers through the fountain (the narrow blue rill to the left).

12. Throw an outdoor slumber party. Encourage kids to feel comfortable in the garden after dark by hosting a sleepover for your family or inviting their friends over. Make the backyard feel cozy by setting up pop-up tents or cloth teepees, or laying down a tarp and bringing out pillows, sleeping bags and blankets from inside. Have kids look for fireflies, listen for owls or watch for shooting stars. In the morning, have everyone come inside for mugs of hot chocolate and pancakes — maybe with a few berries or edible flowers from the garden as topping.

10 Outdoor Updates for Summer That Won’t Break the Bank

These low-cost, big-impact ideas can boost your garden style and make your outdoor space even more enjoyable

By Lauren Dunec Hoang  | Courtesy of

It can be easy to put off making changes of any scale to the garden until you have a chunk of time and a generous budget for it. Our recommendation: Don’t wait. There are plenty of simple updates you can do yourself now that will make a big difference in the appearance of your outdoor space.

1. Invest in one or two knock-your-socks-off containers. Color grabs attention and can be a useful way to draw one’s gaze away from areas of the garden that need more work. Add a burst of color to your entryway with a pair of containers planted with summer bloomers or vibrant foliage plants. Here, a deeply saturated combination of bronze and burgundy coleus, red-flowering begonia, brightly striped dracaena, and lime-green sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas, USDA zones 9 to 11; find your zone) form an eye-catching entryway duo.

2. Try troughs. If building a raised bed (or hiring someone to help) seems like a larger job than you’d like to commit to this summer, invest in a few galvanized troughs for a prefab equivalent. Traditionally used as livestock water troughs, galvanized tubs can be purchased from feed stores and, once drilled with drainage holes, make great raised beds for small lots. Place them in a spot that receives full sun, and you’ll be able to grow an entire small-scale kitchen garden of tomatoescucumberssquasheseggplantspeppersstrawberries and herbs

3. Tuck away your grill. Think you don’t have room for a barbecue? Steal a small-space trick from Aloe Designs of Vancouver, British Columbia, by half-burying a small charcoal-burning grill in the ground. Sure, you’ll need to bend down a bit to stoke the coals and turn over the sausages on the grill, but think of it as an updated version of an at-home campfire.

The grill is nestled in gravel and surrounded by low-water herbs like thymelavender, golden sage, purple sage and hyssop. Be sure to set plants at least 18 inches away from the grill.

4. Hang a hammock. Even just looking at a hammock from across the yard is enough to make you feel more relaxed. Adding this playful, swinging seat is an easy and inexpensive way to tempt you to get out and enjoy your garden this summer. Make use of two mature trees as supports or opt for a hammock that comes with its own stand

5. Repurpose a pallet as a vertical garden. A vertical garden can be a great way to increase planting space without taking up room. Save money on pricey vertical planting systems by repurposing a cheap wooden pallet as a living wall. 

To re-create the pallet garden from this London terrace, mount a pallet against a wall or fence and line the horizontal slats with landscape fabric (stapled to sides to secure) to form planting pockets. After filling the pockets with potting soil, plant with herbs, flowers and vines of your choice. Vertical gardens in full sun dry out quickly — choose drought-tolerant plants like succulents and Mediterranean herbs, and either hook up to a drip-irrigation system or plan on watering frequently by hand.

6. String paper lanterns for an outdoor party. Create ambience with inexpensive lanterns hung from wires crisscrossing above the patio or from the branches of mature trees. Some lanterns contain glowing lights; others can be mixed with a string of cafe lights hung nearby. In dry-summer climates, you can leave them up through the season. In other regions, bring lanterns that aren’t water-resistant indoors if rain is predicted.

7. Plunk a seasonal container in established beds. There’s no need to make major changes to existing landscaping to update the look of your front garden. Instead, drop a large container planted with summer flowers into the bed. If your existing irrigation system doesn’t reach the container, add a drip line for the pot or plan on watering by hand as needed.

Two container combinations to try:

  • For sun, plant North American native purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, zones 3 to 9) with billowing Latin American fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus, Zone 6).
  • For shade, plant delicate Chinese foxglove (Rehmannia elata, zones 7 to 10) with silver-leaved, blue-flowering ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, zones 3 to 8).

8. Repurpose a trellis as a tool rack. Just like in the house, clutter in the garden can be distracting and make it difficult to find a tool you need. Organization systems don’t have to be expensive — you can often repurpose materials you have on hand — and can help keep garden areas neat and organized.

For example, have a garden trellis do double duty as a support for vines and a rack for tools. In this urban garden designed for outdoor cooking, an overhead trellis doubles as a rack to hold pots and pans. Pots are easily accessible for the nearby wood-burning pizza oven or can hang on the rack to dry, keeping countertops clear.

If your garden needs lean more toward potting than cooking, set a simple metal trellis behind a potting station or outdoor work table to act as a tool rack for hand tools like trowels, clippers and pruners.

9. Put together a living centerpiece. Far more long-lasting than a bouquet of fresh flowers, a succulent centerpiece can grow for years in the right spot on your patio. For the best results, choose a relatively shallow planting vessel and pack it with a variety of slow-growing succulents, such as small-scale echeveriahens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp., zones 4 to 9) and stonecrop (Sedum spp., zones 3 to 8). Most succulents grow best in bright, indirect light and in soil allowed to dry out between waterings.

10. Transform your tiny terrace with containers. On a balcony or a paved urban lot, containers can be the best way to increase growing space. Plus, growing plants in containers allows for a flexible design that is easy and inexpensive to change.

In tight spaces, don’t overcomplicate things; choose a set of three to five neutral pots and stick to a rough color palette for plantings. For example, this skinny London garden relies on trio of zinc pots and a built-in planter to provide space for planting. The plants — including olive trees, fragrant confederate jasmine, golden sage and lavender — fall into a color palette of green, gray, chartreuse, white and purple for a fresh, Mediterranean feel.

7 Ways to Make the Most of This Weekend

Enjoy the warm weather and a little free time with these ways to refresh your home and yourself

By Laura Gaskill | Courtesty of

Summer is here and the weekend’s in full swing. Whether you’re hanging flags in celebration of Independence Day on July 4, stopping by a roadside farm stand for in-season fruit or simply relaxing on the porch with a good read (manga for tidying, anyone?) and a tall glass of something cold to drink, here are seven ways to make the most of your weekend.

1. Decorate for Independence Day. A flag on the porch is a classic way to display a flag, but if you don’t have one, there are plenty of other options: Line a walkway with mini flags, hang a pleated fan flag above the front door or line a porch railing with buntings. 

Homes that sit on a parade route deserve extra flair, but even if the nearest parade is miles away, you may want to put in some extra effort if you’re hosting a big party on the Fourth.

2. Refresh the front porch. Treat your stoop to a new doormat and a potted plant or blooming flowers for a quick makeover. Have a little extra time? Sweep away the cobwebs and clean the front windows too. You’ll feel cheerier each time you walk through the door.

3. Scoop up some farm-fresh produce. It’s prime time for summer produce, and the farm stands and farmer’s markets are bursting with color. Swing by your favorite spot or track down an off-the-beaten-path farm stand or market this weekend and load up on seasonal fruit, veggies, herbs and flowers.

4. Get inspired to tidy … with manga? Looking for an entertaining book to relax with this weekend? Marie Kondo is back with another book about decluttering — this time in graphic novel form. It’s called The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story, and it pairs the story of a woman very much in need of a tidying intervention with Kondo’s solid tips on putting your house in order. Released June 27, find it in stores now.

5. Hang a strand or two of string lights. If you don’t already have outdoor string lights hanging in your patio, consider investing in a set this weekend — this one touch can make your outdoor space feel magical. If your home doesn’t have an outdoor outlet, you may be tempted to run an extension cord through a window, but this isn’t a safe solution (especially if there’s a chance of a summer rain shower). Pick up some battery-operated or solar-powered outdoor lights instead.

6. Shop early and avoid crowds. Avoid long lines and crowded parking lots by planning to get grocery shopping done for your Fourth of July shindig early — and early in the day. Before you go, double-check that list to be sure you’re not forgetting key items (such as coals or propane for the grill).

7. Put your to-dos aside and enjoy a summer morning on the porch. Pour yourself a cold brew, grab that book you’ve been meaning to start and head outside. Put the smartphone down and focus on the sounds, scents and colors of a summer morning.

8 Tips to Avoid Snafus With the Movers

Make your move less stressful by taking these steps to protect yourself and your belongings

By Laura Gaskill | Courtesy of

From horror stories of lost, stolen and broken items to surprise charges tacked on to an already high bill, moving is not for the faint of heart. And after recently pitching in to help my mom through a downsizing and a big move, I’ve learned a few things about working with professional movers. If you have a move coming up, read on for eight tips to help your move go smoothly.

1. Take the time to research movers thoroughly. We’ve all heard horror stories about movers stealing, losing or recklessly damaging belongings, but with a bit of diligence on your part you can make sure you’re choosing a reputable, licensed company with ample experience. Check reviews, Better Business Bureau ratings and references before committing to hire. It’s also a good idea to purchase appropriate insurance for your belongings, just in case.

2. Don’t wait till the last minute to book your movers. Moving companies do book up, especially during the busy summer months, so don’t leave this decision until the last moment. Start looking for a company early and get on its schedule.

3. Honestly assess your belongings before getting a quote. If you end up bringing more items than discussed with your movers, the best-case scenario is that you get a higher bill — but the worst-case scenario is that there isn’t room on the truck for everything you plan to bring. The reverse can also be problematic: If you pare down your belongings a great deal between the time of your quote and moving day, you may find yourself paying more than you needed to. 

If you do require flexibility in truck space for your move, be upfront about it. Some companies allow you to pay by the foot, which means you pay only for the space you end up using. Usually this involves sharing space with another customer, in which case your belongings will be divided with a locked partition inside the truck.

4. Don’t assume that professional packers are also pros at labeling. If you’re planning to hire professional packers, it’s smart to ask about their policy for labeling boxes. If they don’t label (surprisingly common), plan to be present while the packers work (a good idea anyway) and make it your job to label each box as it’s completed.

Packing tip: Label your boxes with your last name as well as the name of the room in your new home where you want the box to end up. When labeling rooms, use language that will make sense to the movers: Instead of “Katie’s room,” you could label a box “Upstairs small bedroom.”

5. Block out close parking in advance to avoid long-carry fees. If your movers can’t park the truck close to your home, you’ll probably get stuck with what’s known as a long-carry fee — and the farther the movers have to walk to bring each item, the longer it will take. To avoid this, do whatever you can to ensure there’s a close place to park the truck at both your old home and new. You may want to notify neighbors in advance, park your cars in the closest spaces to hold them, or put cones and signs in the space in front of your house on the day of the move.

6. Remember to measure openings at your new home. After one harrowing experience attempting to get a giant sofa through a narrow stairway (our movers eventually gave up), I now know the value of measuring doorways and stairwells in advance. If bulky furniture doesn’t fit, you may be forced to leave treasured pieces behind, or — if you simply can’t do without an item — you may need to ask for hoisting services, which aren’t cheap and may not be available right away.

7. Take the time to read the fine print. Before the movers leave at the end of the day, you’ll be asked to sign off on the inventory sheet and bill — and you’ll be exhausted when this happens. It’s easy to breeze through these last steps and just sign whatever papers they thrust in front of you, but it’s important that you take the time to actually read what you’re signing. 

Double check that everything that went into the truck has actually arrived. Look over the bill carefully and be sure there are no extra charges. Especially if you were sharing space, belongings can get missed quite easily, so it’s a good idea to take a look inside the truck before it pulls away. And look close: Tiny (but necessary) items like drawer knobs and shelf brackets can easily get overlooked on the floor of a big truck.

8. Just get the big stuff into position; the rest can wait. Think rugs and major (read: heavy) furniture pieces — anything you can’t easily move on your own — are the things that should be put into position by the movers. Ideally, you’ll already be armed with a floor plan of the new space with furniture positions marked out. But if you didn’t get anything that elaborate organized, no worries. Just station yourself in the new place as early as possible before the movers arrive and make some decisions about where things will go. 

Then locate the box with your bedding, because you’re going to be ready for a good night’s sleep!

5 Ways to Create the Perfect Summer Bedroom

Think linen, bedding accents and natural light when preparing your bedroom for the warm-weather months

By Joanna Goodman | Courtesy of

Most of us swap out our clothing every season to accommodate the changing weather, so why not give our bedrooms the same treatment? This summer, when you put away your jackets and heavy wool sweaters, go ahead and add your flannel sheets and heavy goose down duvet to the storage closet.

Not only is your bedroom your sanctuary, it’s probably the space where you spend the most time. All the more reason to give it a summer makeover — both aesthetic and practical. Warm days are on the horizon, so here are five ways to create your perfect summer bedroom.

1. Try linen sheets. Linen, made from the fibers of the flax plant, is known for its exceptional coolness and is absolutely irreplaceable in hot weather. The loose weave of this natural fabric makes it more breathable and capable of absorbing moisture, which allows air to flow through the sheet easily and prevent it from clinging to your skin while you sleep. (Read: less perspiration!) All this translates into cooler nights. 

And nowadays you can buy pre-washed linen, which gives a naturally rumpled look and embodies the casual relaxation of summer. Who wants to break out the iron in the dog days of summer anyway? 

Bonus points for the strength and durability of the material itself. A quality pure linen or linen-cotton blend is built to stand the test of time, only softening with use and ensuring a trusty summer bedding staple ready for action year after year.

2. Lighten up your duvet. Your puffy goose down down duvet may be a sweet, cloudy savior when you can see your breath in the air, but the summer months call for a “lighter jacket.” 

If you like sleeping with a duvet year-round, investing in a lighter-weight one for when temperatures soar is a must. Summer-weight duvets have significantly less down fill than year-round models, which will minimize heat retention while maximizing comfort. They’re thinner and lighter to be sure, but they retain all the glorious benefits of sleeping under goose down. 

If the idea of a traditional duvet still seems too toasty, a down blanket is an excellent alternative, providing the luxury of down in an even lighter package. Look for a 100 percent cotton shell and 100 percent down fill. (Down is advantageous over feathers because there are no quills to poke through and no odor.)

3. Go old-school. Back in the day before down duvets and comforters became common, people slept with flat sheets and cotton blankets. It’s still a winning combination for those unbearably muggy summer nights and a simple way to stay cool. Forget the heavy wool knits and rich furs of winter — look for 100 percent cotton in a looser weave to achieve ideal summer comfort and a light and breezy look. 

Cotton blankets are as beautiful as they are useful, coming in all sorts of waves like waffle and matelassé, as well as classic knits. That means you can keep yours at the foot of the bed all year as a decorative accent.

4. Make a statement with seasonal accents. There’s no easier way to update your bedroom decor than with bold statement pieces like toss pillows and throw blankets that scream summer. A bright floral pillow, for example, will help transition a space from one season to the next at little cost. 

Do away with dark colors and heavy textures and pivot the aesthetic to bright hues or soft pastels. Look for pillows featuring summery floral prints or iconic cabana stripes. A soft pastel throw in cotton or linen will complete your bedroom’s summerscape.

5. Let in the light. When giving your bedroom a seasonal makeover, take advantage of the best summer has to offer by introducing sheer, gauzy curtains to create a bright and airy atmosphere, allowing the sunlight to pour in. Adorn your bedroom with plants and flowers to bring the life of summer indoors.

Downsizing: Moving Your Parents to a Smaller Space

When the child is the one charged with helping the parents downsize, these guidelines can smooth the process

By Patricia Lee  | Courtesy of 

Many seniors eventually need to downsize to a smaller space, whether to a retirement community, a nursing facility or a room in a family member’s home. Often, the task of decluttering and packing falls to their children. 

If you’re the person faced with going through an aging parent’s belongings, it may be tempting to rent a storage unit and just pack it all away. However, that can be an expensive way to merely delay the inevitable. Instead, I recommend you start the decluttering process as soon as possible. Here are some tips to help you through it.

1. Acknowledge the true magnitude of the task. Moving from a home filled with years of memories can be a very emotional process for your parents. Not only do they have to downsize the physical memories of perhaps as long as a lifetime, but moving may also summon unwanted reminders of their mortality. 

For both parent and child, decluttering takes patience. And for the child especially, it can be difficult to stay motivated, since you won’t directly reap the rewards of a tidier space. Further, your decluttering standards may be different than those of your parents. What you consider trash may be your parents’ treasures, and this can sometimes lead to friction. It’s important, though, to involve your parents in the decision-making process rather than taking over completely. Soliciting their input and accommodating their desires is a way to show them you value their decisions and respect their belongings. 

So before you get started, mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. Know that some items may be easy to declutter, such as clothing that doesn’t fit. Others will take more time, patience and thought.

2. Schedule bite-sized work sessions. Decluttering is time-consuming, and it can be tiring for aging parents. If time permits before the move, space out your sessions so you and your parents can maintain the energy to complete the entire house. I recommend no more than four hours at a time, and perhaps just two to three times per week. This schedule allows for a balance between making efficient use of your time and not exhausting your parents.

3. Understand your parents’ lifestyle. Getting a snapshot of how your parents plan to live in their new home will help you narrow down what they keep — with the goal of retaining only what they actually love or need. Even if you think you understand their lifestyle already, it can be helpful to sit down together and sketch out a few details that can serve as guidance as you sort. 

For example, if your parents typically launder their clothes once a week, then 10 to 14 sets of clothing for each season would be more than enough to last between washes. If they won’t be entertaining at their new location, they may feel confident donating their punch bowls and tablecloths. If formal events are few and far between, then three to four comfortable formal outfits may suffice.

Below are some questions you could use as a starting point for your discussion with your parents. You could even use their answers to guide a first pass at eliminating irrelevant items on your own — leaving fewer decisions for your parents to make.

  • What type of clothing do you need? (Daily comfort wear? Weekly church outfits? Occasional formal outfits?)
  • What is your current range of clothing sizes? Is it OK to donate all clothing outside of this range?
  • To what extent will you be cooking and baking?
  • Will you be entertaining? If so, what would be the maximum number of guests?
  • Which suitcases and bags are no longer practical for travel (too large to manage, lacking wheels)?
  • Will you want to decorate seasonally?
  • Which books do you still read and which music do you still listen to?

4. Start with the least sentimental items. As with most things, practice makes perfect. My clients have found that the decision to keep, toss, sell or donate becomes easier the more you practice. Starting your decluttering process with the least sentimental items, such as linens and clothing, and working your way toward the most sentimental, such as photos and letters, can be a helpful way to ease into harder decision-making territory.

5. Declutter by category rather than room. Separating your decluttering into categories is helpful in terms of keeping your parents — and yourself — motivated and focused. It’s easier to make decisions when items are grouped, as this helps you see all at once how many belongings you’re dealing with. Also, you can all feel a sense of accomplishment with the completion of each category. I recommend separating items into the smallest categories possible. For example, instead of creating a category of tops, separate the items further into short sleeves, long sleeves, sweaters. Accessories can be separated into belts, hats, scarves and handbags.

6. Keep only sentimental items that will be displayed. Many of my clients have a hard time parting with sentimental memorabilia. But the truth is, some of these items have been buried in their houses for decades. I usually encourage them to keep only the items they’ll have out. After all, memorabilia can’t be enjoyed while hidden away, and disposing of the items doesn’t diminish the memories associated with them. 

One possible way to ease the permanence of losing sentimental items is to take photographs of them. However, I don’t recommend this in cases where the photograph can’t be filed away immediately, whether in a digital album or a physical scrapbook. If there is no defined location for the photograph, whether digital or physical, then it becomes clutter. Also, if it’s likely that looking at these photographs will bring on feelings of regret for your parents, I also don’t recommend this method. 

7. Take charge of your childhood items. If your parents have saved all of your childhood memorabilia, they may be willing to turn those items over to you for sorting through. This can be quite helpful for parents who are overwhelmed with culling their own possessions. Now is also the time to remove any of your adult possessions that have been stored in their house.

8. Remove unwanted items from the property. You haven’t truly finished decluttering until all the unwanted items are no longer in your parents’ house. Consider ordering a dumpster for trash, scheduling a charitable organization to pick up donations and selling items at a consignment store or online. Although it would be wonderful to earn money by selling some items, if you don’t have time to list them or your items don’t sell quickly, permit yourself to donate instead. It’s important to keep unwanted possessions moving as you continue the decluttering process, as storing them in the house may hinder progress.

9. Treasure this quality time with your parents. Decluttering is undoubtedly hard work, and tensions often arise amid differing viewpoints. So try to adjust your perspective when these moments inevitably come. Instead of viewing the task as a chore, consider it a special time spent with your parents. You may even hear some priceless stories about their youth and your childhood — especially if you maintain a patient attitude, and if you take the time to ask.