Home Care

Hot Tub Installation 101

Exterior Home Hot Tub

Backyard hot tubs help soak away stress and provides relief for muscle aches and joint pain. Before you set up your little oasis, here are a few things to note.

There’s nothing like a long soak in a hot tub, especially when it’s outdoors overlooking the view. Summer or winter, the warm water, and massaging jets ease tired muscles and melt the stress away.

Maybe you’ve been attending pool and spa shows, looking at all the models and options available. Before you get too far along your buyer’s journey, there are a few things to figure out, like if you need a permit, where you’ll locate the tub, and if you need to hire someone to install it. If you plan to add a hot tub to your backyard oasis, these how-to instructions will help you get started.

Do You Need a Permit to Install a Hot Tub?

Check with your local building official to see if you need a permit. They’ll likely ask you a few questions about the location, foundation, and wiring before giving you an answer. If all you need is an electrical permit, most likely the electrician will pull that for you and include it in his fee.

Also, ask your local zoning official and homeowners’ association for any rules regarding the placement of outdoor spas.

Best Location for an Outdoor Hot Tub

The best location for your backyard hot tub is where it will bring you the most joy. Consider the following points before making a final decision.

Proximity to the house. To reduce the risk of electrocution, place your tub at least 16 feet away from overhead power lines. To protect your home and outbuildings from potential flooding, keep it at least 5 feet from any structure. Also, locate the spa close to a doorway into the house or provide a small changing area close by for wintertime use.Plenty of space. Leave adequate space for removing and storing the cover and accessing the maintenance panel.Optimum privacy. If you don’t want the neighbors watching you soak away the cares of the world, hide your hot tub behind a hedge, privacy fence, or wall. Remember a view hidden by trees could change when the trees drop their leaves. Mark the location you’re considering, then walk the perimeter of your yard, viewing it through your neighbors’ eyes.Protection from the elements. In addition to privacy, windbreaks make using your tub more enjoyable, particularly in cold weather. A sheltered location also reduces operating and maintenance costs.Breathtaking views. Stand where you think you want the spa and turn around, taking in each view. Ask yourself if this location provides the calming power you need. The stress will dissolve much easier if your view includes a gorgeous sunset rather than a brick wall. If your property doesn’t offer picturesque landscapes, consider a garden location with flowers, bird feeders, or the soothing sound of wind chimes.

Types of Foundations for Hot Tubs

According to the home services marketplace HomeAdvisor, a 4-person tub filled with water could weigh as much as 4,000 pounds. So, before adding one to your back deck, consult with a general contractor or structural engineer to make sure the deck can handle the load. Other foundation ideas include:

Concrete—Pouring a concrete pad is quick and easy. Jacuzzi recommends a reinforced concrete pad at least 4 inches deep.>
Spa pad—Install these interlocking pads on grass or soil and level with sand for a sturdy but moveable foundation. They’re ideal for temporary situations, such as rental houses.Concrete pavers—Because they tend to shift, stone patio pavers aren’t the best choice for your hot tub foundation. Instead, use interlocking concrete pavers[SZ1] [AC2] and have the pad they form inspected by a structural engineer or contractor to make sure the tub is properly balanced and level.

Shade Your Hot Tub

A shaded hot tub protects you and the tub itself from the ravages of the sun. Also, any heat deflected from windows or other reflective surfaces could damage the tub’s cabinet. For this reason, locate your spa inside or under a gazebo, pergola, or awning.

Although trees provide a natural setting, you don’t want leaves and twigs in your tub. Nor do you want branches to fall and damage it.

Installing Your Hot Tub

Clear the path

Delivery personnel need an unobstructed path to transport your hot tub from their truck to your location, using a dolly. Help them before the big day by:

Choosing a path clear of any water or gas meters, air conditioning units, low-hanging roofs, and gutters, and free of six or more consecutive stairs.Measuring gates and doorways beforehand and comparing those measurements with the unit.Measuring to make sure the unit will fit around any 90 degree turns, bends, or corners.Removing patio furniture, potted plants, or play equipment blocking the way.Checking for and pruning overhanging branches or shrubs blocking the path.

Electrical requirements

Hot tubs come with 120v or 220v connections. If your tub has a 220v connection, it must be hard-wired to the power supply. If it has a 120v connection, it can be plugged into a dedicated grounded outlet using the unit’s 10-foot cord. If the outlet is further than 10 feet away, the unit must be hard-wired. In both instances, the unit requires a dedicated circuit with no other appliances sharing the power. Make sure all electrical work is complete before filling the spa.

Plumbing requirements

You can fill your hot tub with a hose from an outside tap. And to drain the water for periodic changes, attach a hose to the drain port and route it away from the spa and your home’s foundation, to an area that can absorb a large amount of water quickly, like a storm drain.

Steps to Fill Your Hot Tub

Once your hot tub is delivered, assembled, and wired, it’s time to fill it with water.

Turn off the electricity.
Clean the spa per the manufacturer’s instructions and open the air valves.Make sure the drain port is closed.Fill the tub with cold water 6 to 8 inches from the top edge, remembering the water level rises when occupied.Turn on the power and heat to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.Follow directions for adding the sanitizing chemicals.There’s nothing like a hot tub to create a sanctuary in your backyard. Follow these guidelines for the peace of mind that takes your relaxation experience up a notch.

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Home Care

How to Repair Damage After a House Fire

The interior of a house featured on This Old House Season 42 that sustained fire damage. The left side of the room has all of the drywall removed and a door off of its hinges.
Meg Reinhardt

The job of restoring your home can be physically demanding, dirty, and emotionally exhausting—but it’s doable and well worth the reward of getting your house back.

It might start as a spark from an arcing electrical wire, or from some robust sautéing that got out of hand, or more commonly these days, from a wildfire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more than 350,000 house fires in this country every year. Some inflict relatively minor damage to the house, while others consume the house entirely. And while any fire is a traumatic event, many homeowners are left with enough house that they can rebuild the damaged parts and return to life as usual.

Call Your Insurance Company

If your house has sustained a fire, your first call should be to your insurance company. Do not enter the house until the fire marshal or fire department gives the all-clear and says that it’s safe to enter.

Consider Hiring a Structural Engineer and Specialized Companies

Engineer examines a building/home exterior wall. He wears a red hard hat and clear safety glasses and holds a clipboard.
iStockDepending on the amount of damage, you may need to hire a structural engineer to assess the condition of the floors, walls, and roof. These specialists evaluate the condition of the house’s foundation, framing, and building envelope and recommend repair or replacement of any damaged portions. If the house is uninhabitable, be sure to secure it by covering any holes or damaged windows or doors with plywood. To prevent further water damage, tarp off any open sections of the roof, provided that the fire department or structural engineer says it’s safe to do so.

There are companies that specialize in cleaning up the soot, smoke, and water damage after a fire, so if you don’t have the skills or the inclination, call one of them. Restoration companies typically use thermal fogging machines and ozone generators, as well as other equipment, to clean a home’s interior. Many cleaning companies don’t do repairs, however, so you may also need to call a builder, electrician, plumber, or roofer.

Wear Appropriate Gear When Cleaning

Shot of a young man putting on his protective gear before the decontamination process.
iStockStructure fires generate toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. If you perform any of the cleaning yourself, be sure to wear a dust mask, protective clothing, and rubber gloves.

Get Rid of the Water First

Start by removing anything that’s wet: drywall, insulation, rugs, and furniture. Water damage is a real threat and anything that remains wet will breed mold and mildew. If there’s standing water in the basement, you can rent a sump pump to extract it. You can also rent fans and dehumidifiers to circulate air and promote drying; and while you’re at it, replace all the air filters in your HVAC system.

How to Get Rid of the Smoke Odor

Two blue industrial sized fans sitting on a subfloor.
iStockIn the immediate aftermath of a fire, firefighters often set up big fans to clear smoke and its associated odor from the structure. But the smell of the fire will linger long after the smoke is gone, so undamaged surfaces such as ceilings, walls, and floors will have to be cleaned. All charred fixtures, furniture, cabinets, and the like should be removed. Soot is corrosive and should be removed as quickly as possible.

Use a shop vac, or similar, that’s equipped with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter to extract debris from the floor and fabrics, such as upholstery, curtains, and bed linens. Rugs that are salvageable should be cleaned by a professional carpet service.

To clean soot-covered surfaces, experts recommend mixing a solution of a couple of tablespoons of dishwashing detergent, a cup of borax, and two cups of vinegar in a gallon of water. Focus on one area at a time, use a sponge to scrub surfaces, and rinse with plain water afterward. Clothing can be cleaned by soaking in warm water, detergent, and white vinegar. You can also take it, along with draperies, blankets, etc., to a dry cleaner that’s experienced in eradicating smoke odors.

Evaluating the Remains

When all the irreparably damaged items have been removed and the home’s interior has been cleaned, it’s time to consult the structural engineer’s report. It’s up to the structural engineer to assess the condition and viability of the house’s structural components.

If your house cannot be restored with relative ease, it might be time to remodel or redesign it. If it can be salvaged and you opt to rebuild, discuss the proposed construction with the structural engineer. In most places, you’ll also need to get demolition and/or building permits before you start, and current building codes may force unforeseen but beneficial changes to the house, such as a seismic retrofit or energy-efficient upgrades. Depending on the extent of the fire damage, you may be calling an electrician and a plumber as well.

As you’re working, remember that demolition can be dangerous. Before setting ladders, be sure that walls and floors are adequately braced. As with new construction, build from the ground up, establishing the first level before starting the second. And recognize that the emotional toll of this experience can be debilitating; accidents are more likely to occur when you are tired, so take extra care to be rested and alert when you rebuild your house.

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Home Care

Common Roof Problems and How to Fix Them

Roof shingles with garret house on top of the house among a lot of trees. dark asphalt tiles on the roof background.

Staying on top of these common issues will keep the water outside, where it belongs.

That roof over your head, the one that keeps you dry and protects you from the elements? It will weather storms, wind, sleet, and snow for decades, but it won’t last forever. There are a handful of potential issues—old or torn shingles, worn-out flashing, clogged gutters, and more—that will degrade the roof. It’s a gradual process—first a loose shingle or worn piece of flashing lets in a little water, then decay develops, and soon you have water ruining your house. The best thing to do is to fix these small problems before they grow into big, expensive ones. Here’s what you need to know.

Common Roof Problems

Signs you have a roof leak

Roof leakage, water damaged ceiling roof and stain on ceiling close-up
iStockA leak in your roof doesn’t have to present itself as a torrent or even a steady drip, drip, drip. If you suddenly find a wet spot on your ceiling or a stain on it that keeps growing, you may have a small leak. If you have access to your attic, look inside at the area above the leak. Do you see wet insulation or stained areas on the sheathing or rafters? You may even want to have someone soak targeted areas of the roof with a hose while you examine below. Once you’ve found the leak, you’ll have to find the corresponding problem on the surface of the roof.

Note: Many roof surfaces—especially tile, metal, and slate—can be very slippery, and, combined with a steep pitch, make for a hazard. They are best repaired by a professional who specializes in these particular roofing materials. With any roof repairs, always consider calling a professional—they have the equipment and the experience.

Common Roofing Repairs

Loose, torn, or missing shingles

If you need to replace shingles, you’ll need thee items:

LadderHammerFlat barNew shinglesRoofing nailsCaulk gun
Roofing sealant Pick a day that’s not too cold or too hot (shingles get brittle or soft, respectively), and start by using the flat bar to break the seal between the shingles. Slide the bar up beneath the first nail and hit the bar with the hammer until the nail pops out. Repeat until the bad shingles are out. Starting with the lowest course, nail the new shingles in place. At the last course, you’ll have to lift up the shingle above to drive in the nails. Squeeze a bead of roof sealant beneath the leading edge of each replaced shingle and the shingles directly above them.

Vent boots

The rubber boot around the plumbing vents can develop cracks or tears. If the aluminum flashing is not leaking, it may be possible to replace just the boot.

To replace the flashing, you’ll need to choose a boot that fits the vent pipe’s diameter. (You may be able to find flashing units with adjustable boots.) Pry up the exposed front edge of the old flashing with a flat bar, remove any nails, and lift the base and boot off the pipe. Apply a generous bead of roof sealant to the underside of the new flashing unit, then slide it over the pipe and under the shingle course just above the pipe. Replace the nails, sealing any exposed heads, or use nails with neoprene washers.

Other Common Roofing Problems

Leaks can also occur around other areas of the roof’s flashing, such as the counter flashing surrounding the chimney, or the step flashing at the base of a dormer or adjacent wall. If the counter flashing around your chimney is leaking, use roof sealant to repair cracks and glue individual pieces back down.

If you find a leak in the step flashing along a dormer, a sidewall, or around a skylight, there are two options. The first is to replace the flashing, which means you have to strip away the shingles and siding in that area, then reverse the process by installing new flashing and siding.

The second option is to repair the damaged flashing with a judicious application of roof sealant. The trick here is to keep the sealant’s surface relatively smooth—big beads or lumps of sealant can actually divert water, preventing it from draining properly. Nails used to secure flashing should not be exposed; if they are exposed, apply sealant to their heads. In some cases, repair is only a stopgap until the flashing can be replaced with the rest of the roof.

Ice dams

Long icicles and snow overhaning the roof and gutter of a building.
iStockIf you live where the winters are cold, you may have experienced leaks caused by so-called ice dams. Warm air escaping from the attic through the eaves causes a freeze-and-thaw cycle at the edge of the roof. Ice builds up, hits the warm air, and as it melts, water finds its way under the shingles and into the house. Don’t try to chop the ice away—it just damages the shingles and doesn’t solve the problem. You can install a roof de-icing cable, but a more permanent solution involves blocking air leaks in your attic, increasing your insulation, and possibly having a roofer install a self-adhesive membrane and new shingles along the roof’s perimeter.


If not routinely maintained, gutters can cause problems with your roof as well. A clogged downspout will cause the gutter to back up. Vegetation starts to grow in the gutter, promoting water damage of the fascia, which can result in rotting rafter tails. The overflow can also spill out onto the siding or windows and cause even more water-related problems.

The solution is to clean and inspect the gutters at least once a year. Again, you’ll need a ladder, along with a small garden trowel and bucket to scoop out dead leaves and twigs. It also helps to have a hose up there so you can flush away smaller debris with a stream of water.

If your gutters are older, you may find that repairs are in order. Make sure that the gutter’s attachment to the fascia is solid and replace hangers as necessary. Use a caulk gun fitted with a tube of roof sealant to patch leaky seams.


Moss growing on the roof of a building.
iStockIf your house is even partially shaded, portions of the roof that don’t get any sun may grow patches of moss. If you’re a hobbit, you may think that’s a good thing, but for the rest of us, moss is a problem. It gets under shingles, breaking their seal and causing leaks. It promotes decay in all types of roofing materials, notably cedar and asphalt shingles.

There are several ways to rid the roof of moss. If you happen to be getting a new roof, strips of zinc or copper laid in between shingle courses will prevent moss from growing in the first place. If you’re stuck with your old roof, get a ladder, some slip-proof shoes, a hose (not a pressure-washer) and long-handled scrub brush and climb onto the roof. Standing above the mossy areas, direct a strong spray of water down onto the moss and then use the brush in a downward motion only to push the moss off. Repeat as many times as needed, but be careful not to damage the shingles.

There are commercial sprays such as Moss and Algae Cleaner or Safer’s Moss and Algae Killer that kill moss. Or if you’re more inclined, you can mix one part liquid laundry bleach and one part water, spray it on the moss, and then rinse it off with the hose twenty minutes later.

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Home Care

How to Grow Hebe Shrubs

Purple Hebe plant grows in an english garden surrounded by terracotta planters and a raised garden.

These vibrant, versatile bushes can bring color and beauty to your garden all year long. Here’s what you need to know about planting, pruning, and propagating hebe shrubs.

To add depth and color to your garden without working too hard, consider putting in hebe shrubs. These hardy, easy-care plants are pretty in every season, thanks to numerous blooms and evergreen foliage in a variety of hues. Plus, hebe—pronounced HEE-bee—is versatile enough to be used as a border, grown in containers, or fit in just about anywhere your landscape needs livening up. Read on for a hebe how-to now, since summer planting will give roots ample time to settle before cold weather hits.

bout Hebe Shrubs

Original to New Zealand, hebe shrubs can thrive in U.S. growing zones 7 through 11, doing best in locales with warm summers and mild winters. Though they’re in a genus of their own now, the plants formerly belonged to the Veronica genus—hence the still-used common name of shrubby veronica. There are some 100 species of hebe, plus many cultivars. Flowers may be white, red, pink, purple, or blue. Leaves, too, run the gamut from bright green and blue-green to maroon, purple, and gray.

Tips for Growing Hebe Shrubs

Select a species

Hebe Variegata shrub blooms with purple flowers and variegated green leaves.
iStockHebe VariegataChoose hebe shrubs that best suit your garden design goals. For a tall hedge up to six feet high, consider Hebe Variegata, with its rounded shape, purple blooms, and cream-edged foliage. The Grace Kelly cultivar has similar flowers and leaves but is shorter, topping out at three feet. Wiri Blush sports dark green leaves and striking hot pink blooms, while more demure Western Hills has silver-gray leaves and white or pale lavender flowers. Also keep in mind that compact varieties with small foliage, such as Baby Bush and Baby Marie, fare better in colder climates than large-leaf species.

Plant properly

Pick an area that gets lots of light or at least partial sunToo much shade will likely yield a leggy look and poor flower production. If your area is prone to freezing winters, plant hebe where it will be sheltered but not crowded by other plants or a structure (e.g., close to the house). Moist (not wet), sandy soil that drains well is ideal, and the more neutral the pH, the better.

Don’t worry about water

Hardy hebe shrubs are fairly drought-resistant during much of the year. The exception is summer: Quench their thirst with about an inch of water weekly to encourage bountiful blooms.

Close-up photo showing the new purple / pink shoots that are growing on a silver grey hebe in the spring. This compact evergreen shrub is named Hebe ‘Red Edge’, with its leaves being subtly edged with a red color and flowers appearing in the summer.
iStockRed Edge Hebe

Fertilize lightly

Given the right growing conditions, low-maintenance hebe shrubs don’t need much in the way of fertilizer. However, adding organic matter (some combination of compost, green manure, leaf mold, and/or animal manure) or slow-release fertilizer in early spring may help foster growth and blooms.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Hebe isn’t particularly prone to insect damage yet will attract beneficial pollinators. Franciscana Blue Gem and Midsummer Beauty are especially tempting to bumblebees, butterflies, and other desirable garden guests. Hebe plants are also stoutly disease-resistant, though they may suffer downy mildew or septoria leaf spot in damp locales where circulation is poor. Smart planting can preempt these issues.

Prune post flowers

Taking cuttings of Hebe in order to propagate. hand holding scissors and striping off the lower leaves of the plant.
John Swithinbank/GAP PhotosOnce hebe shrubs have finished flowering, it’s time to prune to ensure that next year’s blooms will come back robustly. Aside from that, the plants’ naturally full, appealing form shouldn’t require much trimming. If a bush starts to get spindly, cut back about one-third to encourage a denser, bushier quality.

Propagate easily

Want more hebe shrubs? Simply snip a healthy three- to four-inch section and remove about an inch or so of leaves from the bottom. Moisten the end of the cutting and dip into rooting hormone to stimulate root growth, then plant in soil-less potting medium. Tamp down around the cutting, water lightly, and keep warm while avoiding direct sun at first.

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Home Care

Before and After Kitchen: A Kitchen Makeover That Lets the Light In

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, full kitchen view
Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Lose a wall, add windows, and reallocate adjacent space, then blend sparkling white surfaces with warm wood-tone accents. That’s the recipe for a bright, open kitchen made for family gatherings!

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House MagazineClick here to learn how to subscribe

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, kitchen 3⁄4 view
Stacy Zarin GoldbergShown: Clean white cabinetry, marble-look quartz countertops, and a gray-stained hickory island and vent hood combine with new windows for a refreshed, welcoming workspace. Paint (walls): Benjamin Moore’s Stonington Gray; Cooktop: Thermador; Windows: Andersen Windows & DoorsFlexibility is fundamental to open-plan success, which can mean rethinking how you’ve used certain rooms for decades. Christy MacCormack discovered that in the process of renovating the kitchen of the 1970 Federal-style house in Bethesda, MD, she grew up in. “We wanted a welcoming space for everyone to enjoy,” Christy says—and she means everyone, since members of three generations have been sharing the home, including her and her husband, Mike. “The cramped, dark kitchen from the 1980s really needed an overhaul to function and flow efficiently.”

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, full kitchen view
Stacy Zarin GoldbergShown: Now the fridge, ovens, and cooktop are in convenient proximity for cooking, and there are ample food-prep surfaces. A barn door on the family room side closes off any kitchen commotion. The hickory island and vent hood—both given a cool, light-gray stain—warm up white shiplap walls, Shaker-style cabinets, and marble-look quartz countertops. Designers: Colleen Shaut and Zahra Keihani, Case Architects & Remodelers; Quartz countertops: Norwood Marble & Granite; Wall ovens, refrigerator: KitchenAidTo get there, designer Colleen Shaut of Case Architects & Remodelers helped the MacCormacks reimagine much of the first floor. The wall between the kitchen and dining room came down and a peninsula with cabinet storage went in, opening up the room. The dining room took the place of the adjacent formal living room, allowing for a sitting area with an office nook where the family can catch up while connected to the activity in the kitchen. (A family room off the other end of the kitchen remains the primary gathering spot.)

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, before
Before: Pickled cabinets and a brick-pattern vinyl floor were remnants of a 1980s remodel. Appliances ringed the room, which was closed off from the dining room at one end (shown) and the family room at the other.To let in more natural light and open up views of the park-like backyard, five large windows went in on the sink wall. Appliances were relocated to be closer together for more convenient cooking, freeing space for continuous runs of countertop prep area. Crisp white cabinetry and countertops are balanced by stained-wood elements, including a handsome hickory vent hood and the slim, table-style island that replaced its clunky, clutter-prone predecessor. “The kitchen is both beautiful and sensible, with more storage and no one jammed in the corners,” Christy says. “It’s well equipped, bright, and joyful!”

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, sink area and home office nook
Stacy Zarin GoldbergShown left: An update on a farmhouse staple, the new apron sink has an angular shape and a brushed-stainless-steel front. The sleek pull-down faucet offers plenty of maneuverability to reach every corner. New windows allow in plenty of natural light, and fully adjustable sconces provide both ambient and task lighting. Faucet: Moen; Sink: Kohler; Sconces: Visual Comfort; Hardware: Top KnobsShown right: Shiplap cladding and hickory shelves in the desk built-in echo the kitchen’s finishes to bring a cohesive look to the open space. “The sitting area is a popular part of life around here,” says Christy. The computer desk allows her to keep up with her social media while being part of the action.

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, kitchen view with dog
Stacy Zarin GoldbergShown: New white oak flooring was woven in and the whole floor given a cool-brown stain. A wide open aisle creates an unimpeded passageway for people (and pets). “The flow around the island and into the sitting area, then into the dining room or out to the deck, suits our busy lifestyle,” Christy says. Custom cabinets, island, and vent hood: Crystal Cabinet Works; Flooring: Atlas Floors, Inc.

Expert Advice

“When designing an open-plan kitchen, think about traffic flow from other areas of the room. Create an aisle wide enough for people to walk freely without getting in the way of the cooks.” —Colleen Shaut, Case Architects & Remodelers

Floor Plans

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, floor plans
Ian WorpoleTaking down a wall and moving the dining room opened up the kitchen to a new sitting area.

Demoed the wall shared with the former dining room, adding a peninsula and gaining 2 feet in the kitchen.Put in five large windows to open up views and usher in natural light, centering a new sink under them.Added a cooktop on the wall shared with the family room, shifting the doorway slightly to create a wider aisle to ease traffic flow, and replacing French doors with a barn-style slider. Removed a pantry closet and built-in desk, creating spots for wall ovens and a refrigerator. Replaced a built-in island with a narrower table-style model. Installed a beverage area with a wine fridge and cabinet storage. Moved the dining room into the adjacent living room, and created a sitting area in its place with a built-in desk and a wider opening to the new dining space.

Get the Look

Industrial meets refined in these reno-worthy finds, inspired by the kitchen on these pages.

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, sconce, sink
1. Library-style sconce / HINKLEY
Black-finished steel gives the articulating classic a graphic, modern slant.
Arti Black Joint Arm Wall Lamp, $249; Lamps Plus

2. Modern apron sink / ELKAY
Stainless steel updates the farmhouse classic, while straight sidewalls and a flat bottom maximize usable space.
Crosstown 18-Gauge Single-Bowl Farmhouse Sink, $691; Elkay

Summer 2021, Before and After Kitchen, movable kitchen island, pull-down faucet
3. Movable island / POTTERY BARN
This workhorse island on lockable casters can go from kitchen centerpiece to outdoor serving station, as needed, thanks to its durable acacia base and concrete top.
Abbott Island, $1,699; Pottery Barn

4. Pared-down pot washer / MOEN
This sleek pull-down packs Power Boost technology for faster filling and stronger spraying.
Align Spring Kitchen Faucet in Chrome, $541; Moen

Home Care

How to Build a Kitchen Garden

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, bird’s eye view
Organically grown vegetables, interplanted with flowers and herbs, provide a feast for the eyes, and a steady stock of fresh ingredients for a family of four. Top: A stone threshold helps protect turf from foot and wheelbarrow traffic. Left: Granite blocks contain the raised beds’ soil and will never split or rot. Right: Four-foot-wide, L-shaped beds are easy to reach into for planting and weeding. | Helen Norman

A symmetrical design of raised beds grows out of a blank patch of turf­, adding beauty and productivity to the landscape

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House MagazineClick here to learn how to subscribe

Quick rewards are rare in the garden. Flowering perennials usually creep for several seasons before filling out, while small trees and shrubs can take up to 10 years to reach full size. But edibles? Now, that’s a group that delivers instant gratification. Sow a packet of lettuce seeds tomorrow, and you’ll have a nice little side salad within just weeks.

Having homegrown food steps from your back door is also convenient, which is why Helen Norman broke ground on her own kitchen garden seven years ago. The irony is that she lives on a farm—130 rolling acres in White Hall, Maryland—planted with field after field of certified organic vegetables. All that bounty, however, grows on land that Helen and her husband, Mark Elmore, lease to a professional farmer (her brother).

It has taken nearly 27 years for the couple to shape their 1850s stone farmhouse and its ramble of outbuildings and overgrown grounds into the postcard-perfect setting they call Star Bright Farm. Not surprisingly, growing their own food got nudged off the priority list in the early years, as the couple balanced work schedules, house renovations, and the raising of two sons. “We had this big farm, but I never knew where my brother planted anything,” Helen says. “I’d have to call him to ask, and then send the kids out in our go-kart to fetch a tomato or squash.”

How to Build a Kitchen Garden

Eventually, though, craving her own personal stash of fresh-picked produce, Helen began drafting plans for a kitchen garden. As a professional lifestyle photographer, she had shot enough publication-worthy homes and gardens to know what she likes. The resulting garden—with its symmetrical beds, pops of red, and eye-level trellis plantings—clearly has the stamp of someone with an eye for design. And it was productive, too. As Helen recalls, “We got so many vegetables that first year, I could just grab a basket and go pick dinner.”

That early success—and the years that followed—has yielded lessons any homeowner can learn from.

Design it right

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, installation
Helen NormanStone walls: String lines established the outlines of the planting beds, and provided a level line for the granite edging as it went in. The blocks were installed on end, leaving about 8 inches of exposed height. Where it freezes, a crushed-stone base can protect stone blocks from frost heaves.From the outset, Helen was after more than just a good harvest from her kitchen garden; she wanted it to enhance her property, too. Her 50-by-50-foot layout of symmetrical beds—in an enclosed garden room surrounded by fencing, with arbors over the entry gates—lends what she describes as “coziness” to the sprawling landscape.

Taking cues from the English countryside’s many free-blooming borders, tidy clipped hedges, and formal kitchen gardens, which famously mix edibles with flowers, Helen laid out her own geometric design, framed by flower beds and pickets. Siting it in an open area just beyond a back door offers easy access, as well as the requisite 6 to 8 hours a day of full sun that vegetables generally require.

Proper sizing of the planting beds and walkways ensures the garden functions with farm-level efficiency. Each leg of the L-shaped beds is 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, the maximum width for keeping the center of beds within arm’s reach for easy hand-weeding and planting. Most paths span 3 feet, to allow for a mower or wheelbarrow to pass through, except for two paths beside the center bed, which measure 8 feet across. “We wanted a space for entertaining,” says Helen, who on special occasions hauls in tables with seating for 8 to 10 guests. The 8-by-8-foot center bed has stone slabs to hold potted plants, a decorative boxwood planting, plus pockets for herbs. And an 8-foot-wide gate even allows access for tractor loads of compost.

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, installation
Helen NormanWeed barrier (left): Sheets of cardboard, all tape removed, were layered on top of turf-free soil, to create a weed barrier, then watered well. As it decomposed, the cardboard added carbon to the soil. Plant-ready soil (right): Eight inches of finished compost and topsoil, well blended, made the beds ready for planting.From encouraging good drainage to dissuading nibbling rabbits, raised planting beds offer myriad benefits. Helen’s beds are relatively shallow, at just 8 inches deep, framed by 8-by-11-by-4-inch granite blocks planted on end several inches below grade—a handsome, durable material that will stand up to decades of contact with damp soil. The beds also incorporate a clever “mow path”—a flush-to-the-ground border of flat paving stones along the perimeter that keeps weeds from growing where a mower’s blades can’t reach.

After sketching her design, Helen hired a landscaper for the installation. Using a laser level, he measured out the bed layout, following Helen’s plans, and set up a mason line, using corner stakes and string to mark the desired edging height. Then he got to work digging a trench and placing the stones, adding and removing soil to level each block. In colder climates, where frost heaves are a concern, TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada suggests digging down 6 inches and laying a 2- to 3-inch base of ¾-inch crushed stone before placing the blocks.

Build up the soil

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, cedar trellises
Helen NormanArchitectural accents: Obelisk-style cedar trellises add height and year-round interest to beds planted mostly with ground-hugging edibles and herbs. These are painted in Benjamin Moore’s Heritage Red, echoing the nearby barn. Wood or metal leg extensions can keep a tall obelisk from toppling in high winds.As an alternative to breaking ground with a rototiller or shovel and double-digging to work in amendments, Helen used an easy no-till technique to cultivate her new beds. In a much simplified version of a popular layering technique (see “A Quick Guide to Lasagna Gardening,”), Helen laid tape-free cardboard over the entire area of exposed soil to smother weeds, watered the cardboard thoroughly, and then topped it with 8 inches of well-blended topsoil and finished compost until the soil level was just below the stone border’s top edge. That thick layer of nutrient-rich, fluffy soil primed the beds for planting.

But first, Helen hooked up an irrigation system to make sure her edibles would get the water they needed. She ran drip lines down each bed, spacing them roughly 16 inches apart to give each row of plants a designated water source. Though Helen doesn’t fuss about hiding the tubing, Jenn says it’s easy to do: Simply dig the tubes in just below the soil’s surface, and secure them with irrigation staples. To save time buying parts, you can pick up a kit (such as those sold by DripWorks), and automate waterings with a timer.

quick guide to lasagna gardening

In “lasagna gardening,” or sheet mulching, layers of organic matter are spread on top of unimproved soil and allowed to compost in place—just add moisture. Start in spring to plant the following spring—or in fall, for the impatient.

Step 1: To prep the bed, remove turf and loosen the top inch of soil where it’s compacted. Adding a raised border will prevent runoff.

Step 2: To thwart weeds, cover the entire area with a single layer of brown cardboard, all tape removed, overlapping edges slightly. Water thoroughly.

Step 3: Spread a 6-inch layer of carbon-rich organic material (grass clippings, manure, vegetable scraps), followed by a 2- to 3-inch layer of nitrogen-rich organic matter (straw, wood chips, dried leaves).

Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until the pile is twice as high as the desired height of the bed; finish with carbon. The bed will settle over time.

Step 5: Water well to kick-start the composting process. Keeping beds moist (but not drenching wet) up till planting time will ensure all organic matter breaks down efficiently.

Step 6: Top with 4 inches of topsoil or finished compost. Then sit back, and let the soil’s network of organisms ready the beds for planting.

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, irrigation drip lines
Helen NormanStrategic watering: Irrigation drip lines running through this planting of lettuces, soak the soil at the plants’ roots without wetting the leaves, to help prevent fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew.That first year, Helen didn’t do a soil test, but she did the second year. And she’s made a habit of taking soil tests and amending accordingly every couple of years. “I only add compost when my soil needs it,” she says, pointing out that too much compost, like anything else, can cause imbalances.

As for mulch, the flower beds along the fence get a fresh layer of shredded bark seasonally, but Helen skips mulch—and the chemicals that can accompany it—on her vegetable beds. To prevent weeds around the edibles, Helen plants densely—leaving little bare ground for weed seeds to sprout—and those that do pop up are never allowed to get big. “I just stay on top of it, a little each week,” says Helen, who swears by her trusty Hula Hoe. The long-handled stirrup-style tool cuts off weeds at the root; a built-in “wiggle” lets it work both backward and forward.

dd year-round structure

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, cherry tomatoes, glass cloche
Helen NormanLeft: Cherry tomatoes are generally less disease prone than full-size varieties. Right: A glass cloche protects tender seedlings from frost.With its prominent location, on view from the road, this garden needed to look good through all four seasons. So Helen tucked in dozens of dwarf boxwoods, planting small to save pennies, and framed the garden’s edges with gated arbors and picket fencing made from wood salvaged during a barn remodel.

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, Swiss chard, peppers
Helen NormanLeft: Snipping Swiss chard leaves near the base encourages fresh growth. Right: Heat-loving peppers produce all summer long.Red-painted obelisk trellises, in beds flanking the center, also add year-round color. Hers are often engulfed in blooms, starting with ‘Jackmanii’ clematis in spring and a grand finale of sweet autumn clematis into fall. The metal obelisks and lattice A-frames that punctuate the garden’s four corners add yet more vertical support—and eye-level beauty—sprawling with tomatoes, sweet peas, pole beans, and top-heavy dahlias.

Lure in pollinators

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, Helen Norman inspecting her garden beds
Helen NormanDaily harvest: Home gardener Helen Norman can be found outside inspecting her beds daily during the growing season, harvesting vegetables and herbs for family meals. The garden’s barefoot-friendly grass paths stay cool on hot days, resist erosion, and are easy to maintain with a walk-behind mower. At-grade stones keep weeds away from bed edges, where mower blades can’t reach.Flowers, growing among edibles, are more than eye candy. The marigolds that skirt Helen’s tomatoes are there to ward off insects, such as root-nibbling nematodes, while zonal geraniums—her go-to for covering bare spots—deter Japanese beetles. Plus, Helen adds, “the flowers attract pollinators,” which are essential players for producing big harvests.

With thoughtful planning, those harvests will keep coming. Helen likes interplanting cool-season lettuces and radishes, for instance, with Swiss chard, which is slower to “bolt”—or turn leggy and bitter in hot weather—for long-lasting leafy displays. Repeat sowings of quick-sprouting lettuces and radishes, spaced a week or two apart, provide a steady supply for spring-mix salads.

With summer’s heat waves come her family’s all-time favorite: peppers, from red-hot Cherry Bombs to the sweet Habanero look-alike, ‘Habanada.’ “We do everything with peppers, from pickling to freezing and making jam,” Helen says.

Summer 2021, Landscaping, vegetable and herb garden, garden table, fences, trellises
Helen NormanGarden to table: Rustic fence pickets with mitered tops and tall trellises engulfed in orange-flowering honeysuckle vine and yet-to-bloom sweet autumn clematis create a cozy feeling of enclosure for summer meals outdoors. Ladder-like A-frames support sprawling crops like pole beans.Potted-up herbs, such as frost-tender basil and unruly mints, are also a summertime mainstay. “You can pop containers in anywhere,” says Helen, who tucks them into beds and arranges ever-changing displays on the terrace above the garden.

Then, there are the root-cellar crops—cabbages, squash, garlic, carrots, potatoes. “If you store them properly, you can practically eat from your garden all winter.” And, of course, there are the flowers for cutting—seed-grown zinnias and cosmos, as well as roses and dahlias. Because when you’re out collecting kitchen ingredients in a garden, it’s nice to bring back a bouquet for the table.

quick guide to crop rotation

Rotating crops isn’t just for farmers­—it benefits home gardeners, too. Vegetables in the same plant family deplete soil nutrients similarly and attract the same pests and diseases; ideally, they shouldn’t be grown in the same plot for at least three years. Quadrant bed layouts, such as the one here, make this task relatively easy. Simply rotate crops in a clockwise direction through the four beds each season, and you’ll achieve the desired waiting period—no tracking spreadsheet required.

For an even more foolproof plan, consider grouping these compatible vegetable families together, and cycle them through your beds on a four-year schedule.

Nightshades + alliums: Interplant pest-prone tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant with pungent garlic and onions.

Legumes + carrot family: Plant peas and beans, which add nitrogen to the soil, with taproot vegetables and herbs—carrots, celery, and parsley—that rely on this nutrient.

Brassicas + brassicas: Plant these heavy feeders—cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and arugula—on their own.

Asteraceae + gourds: Plant early-to-sprout lettuces with slow-growing cucumbers, melons, and squash, to crowd out weeds.

Home Care

What’s New: Summer Tools for Your Home

Summer 2021, What’s New, Japanese gardening knife

A new crop of warm-weather problem-solvers for your home.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House MagazineClick here to learn how to subscribe

1. Cuts and digs

Summer 2021, What’s New, Japanese gardening knife
HoriHori Garden Tool

This updated version of a traditional Japanese gardening knife has a forked, 7-inch stainless-steel blade for planting bulbs, slicing roots, and shearing stems. Finely honed on one edge, with sharp serrations on the other, the blade is embedded in a soft-grip polymer handle with an ergonomic profile. Comes with a plastic sheath that clips on to your belt.
$25; Fiskars

2. High-speed whacker

Summer 2021, What’s New, string trimmer
M18 Brushless String Trimmer Kit

Spinning at speeds of up to 6,200 rpm, this 9.1-pound trimmer can run for an hour on one charge as it makes a wide, 16-inch cutting swath. Fitting the optional attachments to its shaft can convert it to a chainsaw, pruner, hedge trimmer, or edger.
$249, battery and charger included; Milwaukee

TOH Pro Tip

“Wide rings of mulch around trees will keep a string trimmer from getting too close and scoring the bark.” —Jenn Nawada, landscape contractor

3. No key needed

Summer 2021, What’s New, smart padlock for a shed
Tapplock one+

It works like an ordinary padlock to secure sheds and outbuildings, but this waterproof, biometric model opens without a key. Instead, you use a smartphone, your fingerprint, or tap in a custom code. The stainless-steel shackle and rechargeable battery function from 149°F to -4°F.
$99; Tapp

4. Protects weathered wood

Summer 2021, What’s New, water-repellent wood stain

Like the look of natural wood siding, fences, or railings as they age—but not the decay that comes with it? This penetrating, water-repellent coating guards against rot and blackening so that the wood will weather to a uniform color. Two coats, brushed or sprayed on to vertical surfaces, last four to six years. Comes in clear—or in 27 tints.
From $55 per gallon; Sansin

5. Find studs, and more

Summer 2021, What’s New, stud finder
SuperScan Kx Series Studfinders

New scanning technology enables tools in this series to find the edges, centers, and direction of studs and joists, identify metal and plastic pipes, and alert you to live wires.
From $41; Zircon

6. Zero turns, with zero emissions

Summer 2021, What’s New, riding lawnmower
LED lights in the front, rear, and sides extend mowing times well past sunset.EGO Power+ Z6 Zero-Turn Riding Mower

Four 56-volt batteries give this 42-inch mower the same power as a 22-hp gas engine, a cutting speed of up to 7 mph, and the “stamina” to mow up to two acres on a single charge. (For bigger lawns, add up to two more batteries.) Recharges in just 2 hours.
$4,999; Ego

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Home Care

How to Add a Clamp Rack to a Mobile Workbench


Mobile workbench with clamp rack, finished
Jenn Largesse

In the final part of this series, House One Editor and DIY Expert Jenn Largesse shows how to add a clamp rack to the Ultimate Mobile Workbench.

Throughout this series, I’ve shown you a number of ways to customize the ultimate mobile workbench. In this video, I finish up our workspace, by demonstrating a simple way to add a clamp rack to its endcap. Although you’ll want to go for a layout that works best for you, read on to see how I created this portion of the workbench to suit the tools in my workstation.

For the cut list, tools, and materials needed for this project, scroll down to the bottom of this page.

Mobile workbench with clamp rack, finished
Jenn Largesse

Steps for Adding a Clamp Rack to a Workbench

Step 1: Create a layout that works for your tools

To get started, I laid out all of my medium and small clamps to determine a layout. I created a 6-inch inset on one end of my workbench, so the clamps could hang in place without me bumping into them.

My plan was to create a shelf for my K-Body Parallel Clamps, Variable Spring Clamps, and Premium Spring Clamps, followed by a dowel that will hold a roll of plastic for paint projects along with a cutter. Below the mainline, I planned to mount my one-hand trigger bar clamps on their sides followed by my angle clamps and their table clamps, and then fill the middle with two sizes of ratcheting spring clamps.

Step 2. Cut plywood and drill holes for custom shelves

With my layout planned I cut a 4-inch-wide strip of leftover plywood to length for the first shelf and mitered a few angled support blocks. I drilled pocket holes in the pieces and secured the blocks under the shelf with glue and nails making sure to direct all the pocket holes toward the back for later installation.

Next, I drilled holes in two more blocks to create a holder for the dowel. And drilled pocket holes in one of the pieces, so I could attach it to the back wall. Then, I cut a strip of thin hardboard to hold the cutter along the bottom of the mount.

Finally, I drilled pocket holes in a 1×4 board to create a rod for the trigger clamps and a 1×2 to create a rod for the ratchet clamps.

Step 3: Assemble your prepped pieces

I assembled two blocks to create four corner pieces that will hold my angle clamps. With my pieces prepped, I started to attach everything to the workbench starting with the long shelf where I mounted the parallel clamps and spring clamps in place. Next, I screwed one block for the plastic roll to the back wall and the other to the sidewall. I could then nail the hardboard in place and add the cutting strip and the roll of plastic on the dowel.

I screwed the blocks to the back wall for the one-hand trigger clamps, staggering their height to make more room. And then added smaller 1×2 blocks in the middle for the two sizes of my ratcheting clamps.

Finally, I added the corner blocks along the lower section using pocket hole screws and then added the angle clamps. I also added a 1×2 block beside them to hold their table clamps. And with that, my ultimate mobile workbench was complete!

To see the other customizations I made to this bench, click the links below this video:

Building a Mobile Workbench with Built-In Table SawAdding Tool Organization to a WorkbenchBuilding DIY DrawersCreating a Dust Collection SystemAdding a Downdraft Sanding Station

Cut list

¾” Plywood shelf – 1 @ 4” W x 27 ¼” L¾” Plywood supports – 2 @ 4” W x 4” H¾” Plywood angled supports – 4 @ 4” W x 4” H¾” Plywood angled supports – 4 @ 4” W x 3 ¼” H½” Dowel – 1 @ 14 inches 1×2 Hangers – 3 @ 4 inches1x4 Ends and hangers – 4 @ 4 inches


¾” plywood (use leftover pieces from mobile workbench frame)(1) 1 x 2 x 6(1) 1 x 4 x 6(1) ½-inch dowel(1) 1/8-inch plywood or hardboard to hold plastic roll cutterWood glue1 ¼-inch pocket hole screwsPlastic roll with cutter(4) Angle clamps(4) K-Body parallel clamps(4) Variable spring clamps(4) Premium spring clamps(4) One-hand trigger bar clamps(4) Small ratcheting clamps(4) Large ratcheting clamps


Home Care

Meal Prep for Pros on the Jobsite | Gift Guide 2018

Encourage your favorite tradespeople to eat healthy on the job with these handy kits

Eating healthy on-the-go can be a challenge, especially on hectic construction and building sites. Make it easier for your favorite tradesperson to eat right with one of these handy kits. The ECO Adventure Kit (shown above) doubles as a useful addition to any camping trip, too. It comes with components for packing, warming, and storing food.

Encourage preparation of healthy meals in advance (instead of just picking up fast food). Perfect for salads and other dry lunch foods. Not advisable for a lunch menu that leaks. Compact design latches together for hassle-free transport.

Encourage preparation of healthy meals in advance (instead of just picking up fast food). Perfect for salads and other dry lunch foods. Not advisable for a lunch menu that leaks. Compact design latches together for hassle-free transport.

The ECO Adventure Kit comes with a Tri Bento (shown in video above), a stainless-steel spork, and a clamping pot grip handle.

About $36; ECOlunchboxes.com

No need for the camping utility provided by the ECO Adventure Kit? Prefer soupy or saucy lunches? Opt for these leak-proof containers instead.

No need for the camping utility provided by the ECO Adventure Kit? Prefer soupy or saucy lunches? Opt for these leak-proof containers instead.

The Seal Cup Trio is made of durable steel and silicone, making it tough enough for any contractor’s lunch bag. The containers nest into each other when empty for easy transport back home. Bonus points, of course, for reducing waste by lunching with reusable containers.

About $32.99; Ecolunchboxes.com


Ultra-portable gift ideas for coffee loversSee the full TOH Holiday Gift Guide

Home Care

Best Gifts for Cats and Cat Lovers | Gift Guide 2018

Amazing finds from Amazon Handmade, IKEA, and more DROP A HINT! See something you want? Use the social media buttons below to share on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest and drop a not-so-subtle hint.

Wood Cat Swing

These birch plywood swings are perfect for small pets, measuring at a height of 21.6 inches, a length of 22 inches, and width of 20.9 inches. Handcrafted with care, this pet accessory won’t be an eyesore in your living area.

About $360; Amazon Handmade

LURVIG Cat House

PHOTO: IKEAThis modern cat house can stand on legs or you can mount the box on a wall. Features a scratching surface on the door and pet cushion inside. Rubber-coated feet ensure little-to-no floor damage or movement of the structure as your pet uses it. BONUS! This can be incorporated into the IKEA KALLAX shelving unit.

About $55; IKEA

Fold-out Pet Bed

PHOTO: IKEAThis sleek design opens to accommodate growing pets or a sleepover with little furry friends!

About $50; IKEA

LURVIG Pet Blanket

PHOTO: IKEAProtect your furniture and bring a little piece of home while traveling. This pet blanket is made with water-resistant fabric, but still provides a cozy surface for pets to relax. Machine washable.

About $20; IKEA

Chunky Knit Pet Beds

PHOTO: AMAZON HANDMADEHandmade of 100% pure merino wool, these pet beds are created with a trendy chunky knit.

About $50; Amazon Handmade

Non-tip Pet Bowls

PHOTO: PLATINUM PETSHelp pet parents keep the feeding area clean with this clever bowl by Platinum Pets. The Better Bowl is rust-resistant, durable steel and a silicone base ring ensures less skidding, tipping, and spills.

About $11; Amazon


Like This Old House on Instagram to learn how you can win Platinum Pets Better Bowls on Black Friday!

Fruit Tart Cat Bed

PHOTO: MEOWINGTONSThis bed comes with one tart shell and 5 small fruit cushions. Just add one sweet pet and the end result is the most adorable thing on the planet. Click the link below to see what we mean.

About $54; Meowingtons

Hot Pursuit Automatic Laser Toy

PHOTO: MEOWINGTONSThe laser spins 360 degrees, changing directions unpredictably to keep your cat entertained and on its paws. Multiple speed settings for hours of entertainment.

About $49; Meowingtons


See our top DIY pet projects, orExplore our FULL Holiday Gift Guide>*This post includes affiliate shopping links

What’s on YOUR wish list? Tell us in a comment below

Did you miss our previous article…