Category Archives: Design/Home Decorating

Top 10 Ways to Get Rid of Stuff

It’s a whole new year, which means 12 more months of opportunities to simplify your life. Especially when having a kid usually means a giant influx of Stuff every holiday.

Our home is so small, and in such a constant state of DIY projects, that cleaning, moving, repairing, selling, sorting, and often moving it again is practically a full-time job. On the other hand, it keeps us very honest about what’s most important and encourages–well, forces–us to spend lots of time together. And, frankly, lots of time outside, which is one of our priorities.

As a landscape designer, I believe in the incredible power of spaces to change the way people feel and to encourage or discourage activities and behaviors. If you’re trying to keep up an exercise routine or yoga practice and have to move furniture every time you’re ready to start your sun salutations, it’s going to be harder to maintain the habit. The easier it is to find the right shoes in the morning, the more likely you’ll make it out the door to walk before work. If your fridge is clean and you don’t have to fight an army of half-empty condiments you don’t really like that much, the more likely you are to actually make yourself something than order a pizza. If you live in an area where that sort of thing is even possible. Out here you’re kind of stuck with whatever’s in the freezer.

The point is, getting organized makes you feel better, makes your life easier, and creates the space in your life for new things to happen. Around here, there are a lot of new things we’re hoping to make happen, so the first thing we did after the smoke cleared from the holiday was take the tree down and start moving the furniture.

Since I’ve made such a career about getting rid of stuff over the last year or so, I’ve had questions from neighbors and friends about how to do it. Sure, there’s a certain element of “just open up a drawer, and get started!” but like so many things, the devil is in the details. Now that you’ve paired down your closet and the rest of the usual suspects, what do you do with all of this? Here are some ideas.

1. Sell your stuff online. You’ll need a printer (for postage labels) and a small kitchen scale so you can weigh packages. If you’re only selling large items, your bathroom scale might work. You’ll also need to set up a Paypal account to receive money from eBay transactions, if you don’t already have one.

EBAY. Separate out anything of high value or with a brand name and sell it on eBay for some cash. Jewelry that is vintage, signed by a designer, or has precious metals or stones you can weigh sell well on eBay. Brand-name handbags and occasionally clothing can be worth reselling, although eBay is a little hyper-sensitive about thinking your vintage handbag is a knock-off. Sometimes they’ll make you take down the listing. Audio-visual gear in very good working condition and some types of electronics may be worthwhile, too. Anything still sealed in a box you haven’t opened since it was given to you last holiday season is probably also a good candidate. Unopened toys, cosmetics, that type of thing.

AMAZON. Sell back all those college textbooks you’re holding on to–and while you’re at it, that stack of paperbacks you’re never going to get around to reading–on Amazon. In some cases, Amazon will allow you to mail in the book and simply give you a gift card for a (really) small amount, but in most cases you’re better off selling the book yourself. Amazon is also a great place to unload your CD’s and DVD’s. Seriously, why do you still have those?

2. Have a garage sale, or participate/organize a local group garage sale or rummage sale. Or create a “virtual garage sale” where you post a group of items on Craigslist or other online service, to attract more attention. It’s a massive pain, but you make some cash and you will be totally surprised how much of your stuff people will give you money for. By the way, if someone makes an offer, accept it! The cash is a happy side benefit, but the real point is not to have to take it home! This is a great way to get rid of baby and little kid gear, or large furniture items.

3. Give your stuff away. Give appropriate books to schools, libraries, or charitable organizations. Figure out what your kid’s school might take. Map out the local charity organizations and get a list of what they accept and don’t accept. Give clothes and toys to your kid’s smaller friends, or to local charities. Give your great aunt Melba’s dining set that you never liked to Goodwill. Get comfortable asking people if they want something you have (like a piece of furniture, or baby gear.) Give things to friends regularly, until they start trying to avoid you. Let go.

4. Recycle your old electronics. The giant pile of things with random plugs and cords and unidentified adapters. Take the whole pile to a place that accepts electronics recycling. You’ll have to Google around a little bit until you find a place that accepts this stuff, and you may have to pay a fee by the pound. For cellphones, search for charities that accept old cellphones, so you don’t have to pay a fee.

5. When all else fails, throw it away. Yes, it hurts. It seems like such a shame. But sometimes it just has to go! If you can’t sell it, and charities won’t accept it, and you can’t give it away, put it on the curb with a “free” sign, or put it in the bin. Get that burdensome stuff out of your life and make some space for good things to come in. Go ahead, get started with some of those condiments.

More ideas for unloading stuff? Chime in!


Renovating a Not-So-Lovely Old Dresser

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Where the hell have I been, and what have I been up to?

Well, kindergarten has started and I’ve been a very busy little bee! I’m finally getting around to all those projects I put off as Miss H and I made the most of our final weeks of summer. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting more photos of my many projects, as I start to get everything buttoned up in the garden before the rains start.

A wonderful friend of ours gave us some Feng Shui tips for boosting our chi in this incredibly tiny house, so one of the things I’ve been doing–in addition to the near-constant decluttering–is trying to improve and better organize our storage. I plan to post more about that soon, but first I had to show off my lovely before-and-after. A few coats of primer and paint can work such amazing miracles!

Here’s the solid wood dresser I picked up off Craigslist for $45:

Ugly, with lots of potential.

Ugly, right? So dark! And the horrible brass handles! But NINE, count them, NINE spacious solid wood drawers! And standing on lovely little legs, so I can vacuum underneath! Can you tell how excited I was to finally find the shape I wanted, at a price I can stand? If dropping $600-$1000 on a brand new dresser from Pottery Barn is not in the cards for you, either, recycle! It’s amazing what people are trying to get rid of.

All you need in your grrl toolkit is a Random Orbit Sander. WAY less time and elbow grease involved! Every grrl should have power tools. In fact, if you want more tips for power tools, head on over to the store at Bowman Hall and look at the “In the Garden” section for some of my favorites.

Turned out I had to go to three different hardware stores to find handles that would fit the odd spread of the old brass ones–I should have just gone straight to Belmont Hardware, they always have EVERYTHING. Here’s what it looked like with a few coats of paint, and some new hardware. You can also admire the lovely old redwood plank floor I sanded and refinished all by myself about five years ago, when Miss H was just a couple of months old. When I discovered the wonder of having one’s very own random orbit sander:

A new life in white, with brushed nickel handles and knobs from Belmont Hardware.

Tree Nazi

My favorite part of the holidays is the tree. And the fact that it coincides with Dungeness Crab season. But seriously, some might say I get a little bit out of hand. That I’m a Tree Nazi. And I do, occasionally, feel as if I’m living in a Seinfeld episode when I get in the holiday spirit.

So I’m a little bit type-A about, well, everything. I can’t help it if I like things to be perfect. Or at least, as close to perfect as they can be given the constant flow of children, pets, people, muddy boots, etc. around here. And, being a professional designer, I usually have a method to my madness. Particularly when it comes to a Christmas tree.

Maybe you’re searching for a Better Way to decorate your tree, and you have the patience to read through my rant. Otherwise, skip back to the cheese or something because you’re about to find out all about my Christmas Crazy.

The key to a gorgeous, dimensional tree starts with selection. If you choose a very fluffy, full tree like a Scotch pine, there’s no room for large ornaments to hang down between layers of branches. Redwoods have lots of space between branches, but they make terrible Christmas trees because the branches are so weak and so long. They’re delightfully inexpensive, because around here you can go cut one out of your yard, but one lightweight ornament can cause a branch to go from perky to weeping. One particularly broke year during graduate school, I used a 6′ redwood top for a Christmas tree. I decorated it with cocktail parasols, the only thing I had on hand light enough not to weigh it down.

Personally, my favorite is the Noble fir. Nobles smell great and have strong, luxuriously velvety layered branches with plenty of space for large, drippy ornaments.

Once you’ve selected the perfect tree, and set it up securely (if you have a cat, cable it to the ceiling, consult any engineers in your family, or get a fake tree like mine–otherwise I foresee tree tragedy in your future), you’re ready for lights. What color lights, you ask? WHITE! This is an ongoing discussion in the family, on the order of the Barbecued or Oven-Baked discussion that occurs every Thanksgiving. Personally, I think colored lights are distracting. One exception might be if you decided to go with an all-white or all-silver theme, in an all-white studio apartment, and you don’t have many ornaments. The color might be fun. But the minute your feature ornaments include odd color combinations of clay, pipe cleaners and clothespins, or glue-on sequins, the colored flashing lights are just going to be over the top.

Now, lights are not garlands. They are not meant to be artfully dripped around the tree. First, I start by wrapping the lights around the trunk of the tree near the base, with the plug hanging out wherever convenient. Wrap up the trunk, then out around each layering branch, then in to the next branch, and so on until you have worked your way up the tree. You should have lights close to the trunk around the interior of the tree, as well as wrapping around each major branch layer, out nearly to the tips. Definitely test each string before you start wrapping, and wrap with one string at a time before connecting the next string, or it’s way too difficult to handle.

I was so proud of myself last year because I finally got all my lights organized into bins like these, so I could work with one set at a time. My current inside tree is a pre-lit fake thanks to our dearly departed Izzy (aka “The Cat Who Loved Christmas”) but I also like to light some of my outside trees. Older camellias, japanese maples, and other open-branching garden specimens are gorgeous subjects for holiday lights. Same thing, wrap from the inside to the outside, and from bottom to top.) So much easier now!

Once the lights are in place, lay out your ornaments. I know, here’s where you’re thinking “she is so type-A!” but seriously, if you unpack all of the ornaments you want on the tree, and lay them out on trays or a desk where you can see them, it is SO much easier to (1) color-coordinate; (2) start with the larger ornaments first; (3) hang them evenly around the tree; (4) find the heirlooms to feature them and (5) save room for the unbreakables around the bottom. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


First, arrange your garlands if you have any. THESE can be dripped around artfully, remembering to keep them about 1/3 of the way back on the branches, saving the outer tips for feature ornaments. This is one of the problems with scotch pines and cypresses, they’re so full that garlands will sit on the outer tips of the branches, and ornaments will have to fight for space. If you still love the ribbon look and you want one of these full trees, try the trick of starting at the top and running ribbons or garlands vertically to the bottom. Use wired ribbon so it will stand up a bit from the tree, and hang the ornaments between the bands. Do you need garlands? NO. But particularly for trees with large open layers, a wired garland that stands up a bit or smaller beads that droop down can fill in some of the gaps or fluffy sections where ornaments don’t hang as well.

Next, begin with the larger main color ball ornaments. The easiest way to color-coordinate a stylish, rockin’ Christmas tree is to pick a palette and stick with it, then collect around that palette. (Or if you’re crafty and have time, make some in your custom color palette.) My parents’ tree (which I have been decorating since I was about 9) has evolved to a main palette of copper, with acid green and deep purple accents. The theme is basically fruits and vegetables. Gold and silver are effectively neutrals for holiday decorating. I’ve always loved blue and silver, which is SO not a traditional Christmas color scheme, but I really can’t stand the whole tartan plaid thing, it just makes me think of the tree dressed in pajamas or something. I start looking around for antlers on the wall. I really like sparkle during the holidays.


The point is, everyone has their thing, just pick a general scheme and stick with it. The tighter and more consistent the color scheme, the more organized the tree is going to look, and the more your unique heirloom ornaments will stand out and be noticed. If your tree is LESS than four feet tall, stick with one color and a neutral, like silver or gold. Not that you want your tree to look exactly like the department stores, but you’ll notice that’s what the display designers are doing. Each tree has a strict color scheme and theme. Now, the department stores do not have any handmade or heirloom lovelies, so they tend to look a bit bland and commercial. But it doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired!

The large ball ornaments should be in your primary color scheme, maybe just a few in your secondary color, more depending on how large your tree is. Here’s where I start to go super Christmas Crazy on you: hang them in triangles. When you stand back to look at the tree (you should be doing this from several angles, wherever you can see the tree in your room) the large ball ornaments should create triangles of your primary color. One down, one up, one to the side. Lots of intersecting, unequal triangles. With trees like the Noble fir, where there is enough space between branches, be sure to hang some of these larger balls farther inside the tree, toward the trunk. These are going to create a deep background for your feature ornaments.

Since you have done such a nice job wrapping the interior branches of the tree, these ornaments will be lit from the back as well as the front, creating an intensely sparkly effect.

Now start hanging the smaller, single color ball ornaments. Some should be in your primary color, some in your secondary color. Stand back and make sure the color is spread evenly around the tree. Again, make sure some are hanging farther back inside the tree as well.

Once you are totally happy with the spread of the single-color ornaments, you can begin with your feature ornaments. What is a feature ornament? All of those fantastically special little picture ornaments of you as a toddler in the seventies, the little plaster handprints, the copper car my grandfather made, or the Sculpey star your third grader made. Assuming they’re not too heavy, hang them on the outer tips around the middle third of the tree, where they can be seen and appreciated. If you’re enough of a control freak, you will make handmade future heirlooms with your general color scheme in mind (or with an emphasis on neutrals, like silver and gold.)

Now, usually I leave the bottom third for last, and hang the unbreakables there (solid sequined ornaments are good for this, wired and painted pine cones, fruit or birds or felt things, etc.) so that you’re not holding your breath every time your inebriated cousin or the two-year old goes for a present under the tree. Or the Cat. However, there comes a time to begin training the next generation in your own brand of crazy.

So if you hear yourself saying “no, don’t touch, let Mommy do that!” one too many times, pour yourself a stiff shot of whiskey, garnish with Egg Nog, and let your kids do the bottom third.

And breathe deeply.

Now confess, what’s your Christmas Crazy?