30 March 2011

Clearing the Back Forty

It was another weekend of landscaping work. We've been working on removing the "volunteer" trees from the back corner.

We finally got to a point of bringing in some help with the big tree trunk along the back fence.

Once they were finished with the trunk, Steve went to work on some of the remaining roots (a work in progress). With all of the trees finally out, it feels like we have gained a few hundred square feet in the backyard.

Yeah, the back fence leaves something to be desired. That's part of the medium-range plan. But let's review how far we've come in the last few weeks:

28 March 2011

Christmas Wrap-Up

Last Christmas, I had the brilliant idea to simplify gift giving by exchanging gifts that were handmade, used, etc. Although I was really excited about the things I found for my family, the plan was only moderately successful. (I gave my brother personalized notecards and a book about how to write award-winning tweets; he gave me delicious but entirely store-bought hot chocolate...and from the look of his recent tweets, he still hasn't read the book. (Hi, Kevin! Yup, I'm talking about you!))

My mom got more into the spirit. Among other things, she gave me some cuttings from her croton plant. (A+ for taking the theme and running with it.) She had cut them around October and put them in water, but when she arrived for Christmas, she still wasn't sure if they were going to "take." I'm good at ignoring plants, though, so I left the cuttings in water and after a few weeks, two of them had sprouted obvious roots. (The third had sprouted obvious death.) So for the last month or two, I've been meaning to plant them. And I finally did.

I kill store-bought plants all the time, so finding a spare pot was easy. And one of the builder's guys told me a while back that rooting hormone would help with the transition to living in dirt, so I picked up a bottle.

The roots sure look like they're ready to be planted:

Although the instructions made it seem as though rooting hormone is to be used if you're planting a cutting before it sprouts roots, I went with it. I don't know if there's a special technique for applying it; the instructions seemed to presume that I knew what I was doing. (There were tips for before dipping and after dipping, but nothing on the actual dipping.) So I just stuck the cutting in the bottle, wiggled it around...

...and put it in the pot...

...then added more potting soil.

Et voila -- three weeks from almost certain death. (Hopefully not.)

Oh, and I threw in a few of these water retaining crystals, 'cause I saw someone on TV talking about them. (They're supposed to help with my watering issues.)

And if someone's on TV, it's safe to assume he knows what he's talking about, right?

26 March 2011


I don't need to tell you how tough things are in Japan right now. Instead, I'm just going to share some things I love about that country and its people. I've never spent time in Japan (although I grew up in Hawaii, which has a huge Japanese population), and I know some of the items on this list are trivial, but believe me when I say that my purpose is to celebrate a wonderful culture.

In no particular order...

1. Hello Kitty...and her bunny friend, My Melody:

Having spent my childhood (until I was ten) in Hawaii, I practically lived at the Sanrio store (the only place for Hello Kitty wares at the time, before she was licensed to Target and other places). I could never afford one of those supercool pencil cases like so many other girls had, but I loved (and still love) Hello Kitty pencils, pens, erasers, etc. (Even the Sanrio website -- whose motto is "Small Gift, Big Smile" -- describes the fanciest pencil case currently available as the "super coolest"...and it's not even as fancy as the ones I used to long for.) I try not to buy myself Hello Kitty items anymore, but friends sometimes do, which always puts a smile on my face. My friend Ursula even painted this sign for me when we went to a triathlon in Alabama in 2009:

When I can't resist the urge to buy Hello Kitty things, I get them as gifts for young friends, and it tickles me to see that little girls still love her.

2. Shirokiya. Waikiki's Ala Moana Shopping Center has had this Japanese department store for as long as I can remember (probably longer than I've been alive), and it's fantastic. The My Melody apron pictured above is from Shirokiya.

3. Sushi. Surprisingly, I didn't eat much of it growing up (there were so many different kinds of Asian food everywhere, I think we spread the love and ate lots of different things). But I grew up with all manner of Japanese food and just can't get enough of it. Which leads me to the next thing I love about Japan....

4. Fun snacks. Japan makes the best little candies and savory treats. In fact, when my dad recently came from Hawaii for the marathon and asked what he could bring me, this was my one request:

This candy takes me right back to my childhood. I thought it was the coolest thing ever that unwrapping the clear plastic wrapper reveals a second, similar clear wrapper...but that one is made of rice paper, and you can eat it. Crazy but true! (BTW, the "amusing toy" inside is always a sticker. I guess that's all you can expect from a box the size of a business card.)

5. Mochi. This technically fits in the "fun snacks" category, but I'm listing it separately because I like the idea of it more than I actually like eating it. Mochi is made of rice and has a jiggly consistency (like jello, but dry, if that makes sense), and it comes in neat colors. These days, you can get mochi ice cream all over Hawaii -- a thin layer of mochi frozen over a little disc of ice cream. You can even get it at Shirokiya.

6. Japanese cars. Honda, Toyota, Acura, Mazda...it's hard to think of a Japanese brand that my family hasn't owned, or a car we've had that wasn't Japanese (although my first car was a Saturn). I learned to drive on a Subaru, and my current car, a Saab 9-2x, is actually a Subaru Impreza wagon that I bought during GM's employee discount sale in 2005 (at the time, GM owned a stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company, and "borrowed" the Impreza while Saab developed its own smallish wagon.) Which leads me right into...

7. Japanese cars masquerading as farm equipment.

Most recently, we invested in another Subaru last week -- our tiller, which I'm digging (no pun intended) so much, I'd drive it to work if I could. (I suspect it wouldn't get good gas mileage, though, and although it doesn't have a speedometer, I'm pretty sure it maxes out somewhere around 1-2 miles per hour....)

8. Japanese plumbing technology. During the selection process, we searched high and low for the best toilets and landed on the Japanese brand Toto (which, incidentally, we bought in both high and low varieties -- taller for the master bathroom and powder room, lower for the bathrooms guests are likely to use). Toto is pretty much the Cadillac of toilets, and their performance bears that out. A very demure co-worker actually stopped me in the hall one day toward the beginning of construction to sing Toto's praises. And we're happy to report that the WaterSense version is equally dependable.

9. My friend Yokko. (I can't believe I don't have any pictures of Yokko.) She, her husband, Joc, and their amazing daughter, Asia, are like family. We have Thanksgiving dinner with them, she loaned Joc to me on marathon day to run several miles with me, and I really couldn't ask for more wonderful friends. Yokko first came to Austin as an exchange student several years ago, but her family is still in Japan. They made it through the earthquake and tsunami okay and are doing what they need to to stay safe from the radiation threat.

Those are some of my favorite Japanese exports. Oh -- one more. In the aftermath of all the devastation, I've heard on the news that Japan is always one of the biggest contributors to relief efforts after disasters in other countries. It's time for the world to repay that generosity.

25 March 2011

Till the Cows Come Home

My part-time job as a landscaper is going okay. Doesn't pay too well, though, and the hours are brutal.

Steve is great on the tiller.

I tried it for about thirty seconds last night and broke it. (However, I was also the one to diagnose the problem -- a belt slipped -- and fix it, so I don't think the incident can be held against me.)

So Steve tills, and I pick up the weeds. It's not the most exciting thing we've ever done, but we are finding some surprises. Like this:

The tiller pulled the lid off. We didn't even know it was there. Digging deeper, there were actually two of those boxes.

They must have been a part of the old house's irrigation system.

Once I knew there were old, defunct pipes and wires under the yard, I couldn't stop until I got them out.

It got kind of out of hand. (We found another box just like these in the front yard. It was dug in pretty deep, so we took out the housing and left the rest in place.)

We put out another sixteen bags of grass, weeds, and mulch, plus three garbage cans of branches, for the city to turn into compost this week. (Fortunately, they took all of it without giving us trouble about it being "dirty.") We're also finding all kinds of construction debris. It's piled up at each porch.

I've been pulling nails and other materials out of the ground since we moved in (especially after it rains, when they seem to come to the surface), but we're finding tons of junk now. Plus a whole lot of rocks.

We've found almost enough nails, tile, siding, and other materials to build another house.

Not really, of course. But there's a lot...and even more in a bucket in the garage.

And surely more still waiting to be found on the second round with the tiller.

We've even found someone on Craigslist to take some of the dirt from the pile in the backyard. Once the dirt pile is gone and I've picked up the weeds from the first round of tilling, we'll spread the ground drywall and be ready for more tilling. Not to mix metaphors, but the tiller is a real workhorse.

24 March 2011

Aw, Nuts

I haven't really ever had a yard before, so gardening is all new to me. Our increasingly bare lot has three plants that we're keeping from the old house (two pomegranates and one hibiscus), and it's really only by chance that I haven't killed them yet.

But over the last couple of weeks, I've spent a lot of time dealing with weeds, and I'm pretty good with them. (Not only am I a total pro at keeping them alive, but I am also pretty good at taking them out). Did you know that this bright, cheery little fellow is actually a totally undesirable weed?

It's called nut grass, and it's bad news. The name refers to the nut-like seeds they have, many of which are as big as almonds (and some are even close to walnut-sized). Unlike nuts, though, these seeds spawn other seeds:

In fact, it's likely that all of these sprouts are actually connected, with more runners spreading out underground in every direction, just waiting to take over the world (or your yard):

They form entire military-industrial complexes underground:

If you don't get all of the nuts out, they'll just keep growing and re-sprouting those happy, insidious sprouts.

So how to deal with it? A landscaper we met with last summer, who first identified our nut grass, told me to wait until after a big rain, when the ground would be soft, and then pull them out...but I'm impatient and have instead used the method of digging way under and around the sprouts and following the runners to be sure to find all of the seeds. And boy is it satisfying to find the end of the chain and pull out the whole mess. (Just don't compost these weeds -- I'm pretty sure it's impossible to kill the seeds.)

22 March 2011

Time Lapse

Isn't technology the best? I've been known to say that sarcastically when my computer has just crashed or the copier is eating a document, but this time I mean it -- because I just used the magic of the internet to track down a bunch of pictures of the house over a period of years. Google Earth actually goes back to the 90s, although the quality of satellite pictures back then wasn't worth showing you. I found, in searching different mapping sites, that a lot of them use Google's images...just maybe not the most current of Google's images. Here, for instance, is what Bing shows for our address:

That's the old house before the fire. Yahoo is still displaying a pre-fire picture, too:

I'm not sure satellite imagery was necessary to see that yellow car from space.

Here's Mapquest's picture. You can tell it was taken shortly after the fire because of the holes in the roof (which appear here as dark spots on the back side, just below the peak) and that white mass out front -- something that was dragged out of the house (carpet?) in the clean-up process:

Then there's Google Earth's shot from November 2009 (a couple of weeks after construction began, before the foundation was poured):

That picture was only used for Google Maps for a few months before being replaced by this one, taken in January 2010:

That's Google's current picture. The funny thing is that clicking on "street view" still brings up this burnt-out, boarded up house (which was for sale at the time, which places the shot around May-June 2009):

So technology isn't perfect, but it can be pretty nifty.

21 March 2011

The End of an Era

Last spring, when the drywallers finished up, the construction waste guys came by to take away all of leftover materials for recycling. Our builder had them grind up some of the drywall for us to work into the ground (the gypsum is supposed to be good for loosening up our clay soil). There it is on the left side of this picture during construction:

(The chain-link fence along the street was for security, and the fenced-off bin in the middle of the picture was where they threw everything for the recycling guys to deal with. In accordance with the green building requirements to obtain the maximum five stars, we recycled everything possible and sent very little to the landfill.)

It was too cold the weekend after they ground the drywall for us to work on spreading it, and then we were so busy, and then it was too hot, and then I was running my legs off in marathon training...and, well, long story short, the pile lingered. Here it is again around Christmas (we spread small amounts as we felt inspired, so the pile did shrink bit by bit):

Now, exactly a year after the pile arrived, it's finally gone. We distributed it around the lot and already started tilling it into the soil in the front yard:

Although there's still a whole lotta nothing out there, I think the neighbors are getting pretty excited about the progress. (Have I mentioned that we recently learned that some of them have been talking amongst themselves about the sad state of our yard? Apparently there was a bit of a collective sigh of relief when we let everyone know we were starting to work on it.)

Being outside this weekend was great. The weather was fantastic (even in the long sleeves that I've started wearing so I don't get eaten alive by bugs), and the little girls across the street were fun to watch as they tended to their own garden. (The littlest of them has apparently decided I'm pretty exciting and calls out to me every time she sees me. On a full work day, this amounts to three or four sightings and heaps of cuteness.) Another highlight was when someone we didn't know slowed as she drove by, asked it if was our house, and exclaimed, "it's gorgeous!" But my favorite moment of the weekend was when a real estate agent who had brought clients to see a neighbor's house stopped to ask if ours was for sale because his clients were interested. (Um, no.) The agent commented that it had great "curb appeal," which I told him was overly generous given the landscaping situation, and he responded that he could imagine how great it was going to look like with a yard...which is nice, as I'm still not entirely able to envision it.... All in all, I put in about 12 hours of work this weekend, and these drive-by compliments really help me to stay focused on the end result that we're working toward.

19 March 2011

Thanks, Craig!

After all of our raking and bagging over the last week, we had close to 40 bags of mulch out on the curb by garbage day (plus three garbage cans of tree branches).

Having lived all week with the bags taking up our entire front porch, we were eager for the city to take them away to turn into compost...but by the afternoon, our curb was still looking like the picture above (minus the tree branches, and with better lighting conditions), with this note tucked into one of the bags:

(I love an impromptu Spanish lesson! "No pudimos hoy recoger sus recortes de patio." By process of elimination, "recortes de patio" has to mean "yard trimmings," which fascinates me -- "patio trimmings"?)

Uh oh. (Incidentally, the note itself was pretty dirty, to stress the point, I guess. I wonder what they do to drive home the point with violations of number 7...ouch!)

I think the problem came from the fact that, when we were bringing the bags out to the curb, the bottom of one of them tore a little, and I'm guessing that when the pickup guys tried to lift that one (which ended up in the unfortunate first position), a tiny bit of dirt that had settled on the bottom trickled out (as it did when we were moving it), leading them to believe there was a bunch of dirt in the bags.

Anyway, not to be deterred, I turned to my friend Craig for help. Okay, maybe "friend" is an overstatement, but he's my go-to guy pretty much any time I want to get rid of something, since he has that list and all. (I'll admit that I don't like him as much to help me find things. Too much work and frustration.) Anyway, I wrote up a Craigslist ad, explaining that I had set everything out for the city but that they thought my mulch was "too dirty" and that there may be some small pieces of rock but that it's basically good mulch for anyone who wants it. In the interest of full disclosure, I even included this picture so readers could see that it's not going to be winning any mulch beauty contests, but it'll get the job done:

Within a couple of hours, someone e-mailed wanting a few bags, and later that day someone else got in touch and wanted everything that was left...which she picked up yesterday in two trips in her minivan to take to her five acres in the country. And with that, order was restored to our curb. Like last weekend, it was clear that she was as happy to be getting our old mulch as we were to be getting rid of it. That's what I love about Craigslist -- there's something for everyone (or, there's someone for everything), and it enables the reuse of things that might otherwise be headed for the landfill.

Well done, Craig.

18 March 2011

Look What We Bought!

As our hands-on involvement in the landscaping project has grown, it started to make sense for us to invest in some things to make the job easier. So we bought this:

No, no, not the truck. (We borrowed that from our old neighborfriendlord.*) This:


Steve tried out a tiller at an urban gardening workshop we attended last year, so he was comfortable with the prospect of doing the tilling ourselves and first suggested, after the landscaper missed our appointment this week, that we rent a tiller. But when we realized that two weekends of tiller rental would cost close to $300 with delivery, we started searching Craigslist. They seem to go for about $400 used, and the thought of buying it, using it for our yard, and then being able to sell it for about what we paid was really appealing, but there aren't many on Craigslist, and that hello-do-you-still-have-the-x?-oh-no-you've-sold-it-already?-okay-thanks-bye routine gets old quick. So we looked at new ones and settled on this Ariens brand 17" rear-tine tiller from Home Depot. It got great reviews and has a Subaru engine (just like my car!), so it seemed like a winner.

It's costing us more than a used one would have, of course, but we're getting a brand new tiller that's still within the warranty period if anything goes wrong, and when we sell it later this year, we should recoup enough to bring the cost down below what we would have paid for a rental...and having it here whenever we need it is going to be so much more convenient.

So that pretty much answers the question of what we're doing this weekend.

* During the year of construction, we rented a house from an acquaintance of Steve's from grad school, Jeff Mooressell (not his real name, but that's what we call him), who lived in the house next door. Although I guess "friend" would describe him just fine, we love the story of how we got to know his family too much to not want to combine everything they are to us into one fun term. Like landfrienbor.

17 March 2011

Green Day, Green Landscape

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, and because I realized I pretty much jumped into posts about our landscaping work without taking much time to explain the green building aspects of our plans, I thought today was a good day to talk about the greenery in the works at the Green House.

The big picture was heavily influenced by the green building program and the minimum we need to do to earn our five-star rating, so these three things pretty much define the parameters we're working with:

1. All new plants we put in must come from the city's Grow Green list, a fantastic resource for anyone doing any landscaping in Austin or in a similar climate. The city publishes a book (free at any local nursery, or available as a PDF on the Grow Green website) that lists hundreds of native or well-adapted plants and gives all the information you need about sun preferences, water requirements, basic maintenance, etc. There are even pictures of a lot of the species, which is perfect for someone like me who doesn't know what anything is. That said, having to choose only from this list is a bit restrictive...and our landscape designer, who claimed that she "pretty much designs to the Green Building requirements anyway" apparently wasn't aware of this requirement. (We had planned to have the checklist on hand to ensure compliance, but when she made that statement, we figured she was on it. Not so, we later realized, as our plan includes a handful of "illegal" plants.) So there will be some on-the-fly modifications.

2. New turfgrass areas cannot exceed 2,000 square feet. Another requirement that was a surprise to our landscape designer, which is why the first draft of the plan showed a lot more lawn. 2,000 square feet isn't much, as our lot has about 6,000 square feet to landscape. And there's even more if you count the right-of-way, which we don't, so we're planning for grass in the first 18' from the curb (which is technically city land and so, we reason, can't be held against us for the purposes of this requirement).

3. Any newly installed turfgrass areas must have at least 6" of soil containing 25% compost. We're bringing in a lot of good soil to work into the bad clay soil in this area, but the bottom line is that we need to spread enough compost to amount to 1.5" (25% of 6") everywhere we're going to put turfgrass. (We're overachievers, so we're actually planning to do that everywhere we're planting anything.)

The green building program also gives points for some other exterior/landscape considerations. We're getting two points (not that we need more points) for using a low-water grass -- a to-be-determined variety of zoysia, which is supposed to be the best compromise between drought-tolerance and lushness for this area.

So that's the scoop on the green aspects of the greenery at the Green House. Something to think about as you drink your green beer....

16 March 2011

Scope Creep

My friend Michele (who I know from elementary school in Hawaii but now lives in Massachusetts) is a project manager, and she recently described a phenomenon known among project managers as "scope creep" -- for instance (and totally hypothetically), plans to paint the house and put on a new roof gradually turn into an addition and all new interior finishes. Something similar is going on at the Green House.

Remember how we hired a landscape designer to put together a plan, and then we got a bid from her for the actual work, and other bids for the fence, driveway (plus front walkway and back patio), and sprinkler system? And remember how we decided against having the landscape designer implement the plan, instead choosing to do some of the grunt work on the front end ourselves before calling in a different landscaper with whom we will be better able to work on a piecemeal basis? And maybe I haven't mentioned this, but we've also decided to handle the front walkway, back patio, and fence ourselves over time.

So the most recent plan involved hiring out the driveway (which is in the works), irrigation, and the process of tilling the dirt/removing weeds/bringing in good soil and compost/tilling some more/grading/installing sod. But when the new landscaper we were going to meet with wasn't able to come on Monday, we saw an opportunity to get just a little more done before we start writing checks, and the scope of our part of the project started creeping again.

We hadn't accomplished as much over the weekend as we had hoped, and we needed a few more work days before we would be where we wanted to turn the yard over to a landscaper for the next phase, so it worked out pretty well that our appointment was pushed back a week. (Except, of course, that it means another weekend of hard labor for us.) Between evenings and the weekend, we can probably get in another 30 hours or so this week, which should be enough time to finish raking up the last of the mulch, spread the ground drywall (good for breaking up the clay soil), spread the dirt pile along the back of the house to improve the grading, cut down and dispose of the rest of the scraggly trees in the back corner, and maybe even start some tilling and weed removal.

Ah, tilling -- the essence of the scope creep. More on that soon. But as of now, we're thinking that next week's meeting with the new landscaper will only address removal of one big tree stump and a few smaller stumps and perhaps a general discussion of what would be involved in spreading the new soil and installing sod when we get to that point.

Steve and I have somewhat different perspectives on the landscaping, especially when it comes to our time versus our money. Steve, seeing it as a question of what our time is worth, has always been more inclined to pay someone to do more of the work, but he's coming around to wanting to do more of it ourselves. My perspective comes from knowing that we were originally planning to buy an old house in the neighborhood and fix it up ourselves. Since we built new, we didn't get to (or have to) do any of the tiling, painting, demo-ing, etc. that we would have done in an old house, so I see this as our equivalent sweat equity effort, and I'm happy to do what we can to save ourselves the cost (and frustration) of hiring everything out. Steve prefers doing what we call "special projects" -- things that tend to lead to visible results in a shorter period of time, and especially if there's some kind of engineering angle (hence his thrill at our recent fence removal). Spreading dirt isn't really his thing, but he's been a rock star nevertheless -- and even initiated the last round of scope creep.

In addition to the cost savings, we're looking forward to the opportunity to make ad hoc changes to the plan as inspiration strikes us. We see the landscaping plan as offering a default option if we can't think of anything we like better, but mostly it was just the kick in the pants we needed to get started. We've started browsing for plants, fountains, hardscape options, and more and are finding lots of fun ways to really make the landscape our own.

14 March 2011

Cool House Tour, Step 3: The Verdict

It's official -- no Cool House Tour for us. It's about 1% disappointing and 99% relief that the pressure is off to have the house ready for pictures this week and over a thousand people coming through in June (on the same day as a triathlon I'd like to do, so that worked out, too).

We did get free tickets to the tour, so that will be a fun way to spend the afternoon after the race.


13 March 2011

Status Sunday: Landscaping...Before Calling in the Professionals

Our goal this weekend was to strip our landscape as bare as possible, to leave as few line items as possible when we get a quote from another landscaper this week. The biggest task in this regard was to rake up and bag the mulch that was spread during construction to keep mud at bay, but we also needed to take away the decomposed granite that we put down last spring as a temporary walkway from the driveway to the front door:

It's perfectly good decomposed granite, and it sells for a few dollars a bag in stores, so I hated to throw it out -- not to mention that I don't know how I'd actually do that (we had about a yard of it, or enough to fill the back of a pickup truck). Shamelessly taking advantage of our block's neighborhood watch e-mail list on Friday, I invited anyone who could use it to come and grab as much as they needed, and we were able to give all of it (plus a leftover pile in the backyard) to an older lady up the street who had, as she put it, big plans but a small budget for her own yard. When we offered her mulch, she gladly took a bunch of that, too, and since she brought three big, wheeled garbage cans, it was a breeze to load them up and pull them to her house. Even though we probably ended up taking 15-20 loads to her, it was ultimately easier than filling dozens and dozens of those paper lawn bags and shuffling them around until garbage day. She even wanted to reuse the plastic edging and landscaping fabric that had held the decomposed granite in place, resulting in zero waste from our temporary walkway. It was the definition of "win-win."

So let's recap. Two weeks ago, the front yard was looking like this:

And midday yesterday:

And now:

Despite all of the mulch we delivered up the street (yes, uphill), we still filled, I think, 36 bags with mulch, most of which is on the front porch waiting to be picked up later in the week. The only thing we didn't get done in the front yard was spreading that big, white pile of ground drywall (the gypsum is supposed to be good for clay soil, so it needs to be spread all over the lot before the ground is tilled).

And now for the backyard before and afters:

The pile in the bottom left corner in the picture above is the pile of "good" mulch, which we gave away (to two different neighbors, actually).

And another angle:

After taking care of the mulch pile, we consolidated three or four compost piles into a huge one in the back corner. Keeping with the theme of leaving one large task undone, though, we didn't get to spreading the dirt pile in the backyard.

That's a project for another day...and hopefully someone other than us....