31 May 2011

The Low(es)down

When we got our sod last month, the installers told us that it would probably be established enough to mow in about a month...and this weekend, right on schedule, the time came. Almost all of the pieces had filled in, with some growing especially well and creating an irregular surface:

It was about 7 a.m. when we decided to get started to beat the heat that would soon settle in. (We were a little concerned about waking up neighbors, but the electric mower is so quiet that we couldn't even hear it from the far side of the house.) Since the sprinklers were already on in the front yard, we headed to the backyard with our new electric lawn mower.

Halfway in, things were going well. The mower smoothed out the differences among the pieces, giving us finally -- finally -- the nice, smooth lawn Steve has been wanting for so long:

Pretty good, huh? (If you're wondering, the plant at the bottom center is basil. It's just living there until we put in our raised vegetable garden beds.)

Unfortunately, though, that's the only part of the yard that now looks like that. Halfway into mowing the backyard, the mower started to sputter and then stopped. We couldn't get it started again. Something was definitely wrong.

Pretty sure we had bought it within the last 90 days (the deadline for returns to Lowe's), we hunted down the receipt...only to find that their return policy on garden electrics (lawn mowers, edgers, etc.) is only 30 days. We were peeved. We do a ton of shopping at Lowe's and had no idea that there were exceptions to the return policy. (Although, in their defense, it is printed on the receipt.) The mower has a two-year warranty, so we knew we could get it fixed, but the breakdown about the third time we used it didn't exactly inspire confidence.

We decided to try taking it back anyway. And here's where we proclaim, loudly and happily, that Lowe's gets an A+ for customer service, because they took it back, no questions asked. (Except for, you know, "What's wrong with it?") We didn't buy a new one right away -- we're trying to decide between a new corded electric mower and perhaps a reel mower like Fiskars's model. We have a friend with a push mower, so we'll probably borrow it from him and try it out before deciding.

Anyway, we couldn't be happier that our neighborhood home improvement superstore rose to the occasion and stood behind their product. We've found that Lowe's is generally more expensive than Home Depot, but with customer service like that, we tend to think it's worth it.

28 May 2011

Four Long Months

That's how long since I wrote this post about wanting a new look for the guest room. I finally pulled the trigger and bought the West Elm Spring Floral duvet I've had my eye on all year:

Anyway, in the meantime, I've also been exploring other options, and I liked this duvet (called Organic Reflections) enough to try it, too:

This one was on sale, which, combined with the 20% off coupon we had from their Etsy event back in February, made it a pretty good deal. The Spring Floral duvet wasn't on sale, but since we were using the coupon, we decided to go ahead and buy it.

I tried the Spring Floral first:

After laying it out on the bed, I knew that I didn't even need to try the Organic Reflections (good thing, too -- there's no way I would have been able to fold it back up like it was). I love how the Spring Floral looks with the wall color and the pillows. (A change is on the horizon for the night stands, and I'm still working on wall art.) We didn't anticipate that the blue and green floral pillows -- which we've had forever -- would go with the new bedding, so that was a nice surprise. We did, however, plan for the green pillow in front to work with the duvet when we bought it (also at West Elm) a few months ago:

We paid $5 for it, but it needs some work. It was (is) a Euro sham, which we wrapped around a smaller, rectangular pillow with plans to sew it smaller...someday. Here it is in all its mis-sized glory:

We also bought another pillow, although we probably won't keep it in the guest room (that's just where we have the best afternoon light for pictures):

Its felt loops give it a really neat texture (both tactile and visual):

It's a nice counterpoint to this dainty little linen pillow that I bought a couple of months ago at the Dillard's clearance center (which, sadly, closed last week):

But back to West Elm. I've had my eye on this "nutmeg"-colored throw for a while (which is great with the colors in the master bedroom), and between its clearance pricing and the coupon, I could finally rationalize the purchase:

And one last thing we picked up (for about $5 after the coupon) was this fun little note card set that we plan to give to a little friend as a gift:

'Cause when you're a kid, what's more fun than making something and getting your hands all inky at the same time?

27 May 2011

Green in Action: Metal Roof

Typical asphalt shingle roofs are really common down here in Texas (as in most places), but they aren't ideal due to our summer temperatures that can stay in the 100s (or at least the 90s) for weeks on end. (It's only May, and we're already there.) The sun and heat break down the shingles much faster than usual -- a "30-year" shingle might only last ten or fifteen years before the time comes to replace it.

That's one of many reasons we chose a metal roof, which cost two or three times as much as an asphalt roof but shouldn't need to be replaced, like, ever (at least while we own the house, which we hope will be decades). Not only is a metal roof not affected by sun and heat like asphalt shingles are, but it even reflects much of the light that hits it, keeping it (and the sheathing beneath it) cooler. I think Austin's current building code requires a radiant barrier under every new or replaced roof, which is usually achieved either through a special silvery spray paint applied to the underside of the sheathing (in the attic space) or by metallic sheets attached to the underside of the roof. How the application of a thin silvery surface in a dark attic makes any difference to the temperature mystifies me, but people smarter than I have figured out that it does. Anyway, a metal roof acts as its own radiant barrier, further keeping the heat out.

Taking things to another level, metal roofs are perfect for sealed attics. A traditional attic needs to be vented (usually at the soffit -- the underside of the overhang -- and the ridge or somewhere neat the top) so the heat that builds up has a way to escape. But even with proper venting, attics down here can easily reach 120 degrees during the summer. With a sealed attic, the insulation (usually spray foam) is placed against the top of the attic space instead of along the ceiling of the floor below, keeping the attic within the "thermal envelope" of the house (the space that is heated/cooled).

As a result, our attic stays within about five degrees of the temperature of the main level, so it's never too hot (or cold) to comfortably go up there. More importantly, though, it means that our air conditioning equipment doesn't have to work extra-hard to force cooled air through ducts run inside an oven (or, in the winter, warm air through a meat locker).

The roofer our builder uses also put the metal roofing up on these wooden slats (called "battens" in the biz):

In additional looking super-cool, they keep the hot metal up off the underlayment and sheathing layers and also provide a channel where heat that manages to find its way under the metal can still escape (kind of like the vents in a traditional attic, but a few layers farther toward the outside).

More on that here.

Bottom line: our roof system is a huge part of keeping heat out of the house, which (along with blown-in cellulose insulation in the walls and high-quality windows) is a huge part of minimizing our energy use and keeping our utility bills about the same as they were in our condo, which was half the size of the house.

So, with sun and heat pretty much crossed off the list of potential threats to our roof, hail moves up in importance. And the other night our metal roof had its first real run-in with hail.

Not huge, but not tiny. (And given the recent tornadoes that have wrought destruction across several states, we count our blessings that some rain and hail is all we've had to deal with.)

Metal roofs are great for handling hail, too (hence my belief that the roof will likely outlast us). Ours has these ridges that give it extra durability:

We even get a discount on our homeowners' insurance because metal roofs are proven to protect against hail damage.

A question we are frequently asked is whether the metal roof is loud in the rain. Early on, we raised that issue and were told that it's not. Which is sort of true and sort of a total lie. With spray foam insulation under the roof, it's true that noise is well baffled. But that doesn't help with the overhangs, where the rain hits the completely uninsulated eaves. And we totally hear that through the windows.

Times a hundred when it's hail, we just learned. It sounded like thousands of marbles being thrown, repeatedly, at the roof. In bed at four-something a.m., the sound was unmistakable. Although it could have been mistaken for gunfire. Or fireworks.

I don't know whether the hail was big enough to do any damage to any asphalt roofs, but it was nice not to have to worry about that as I tried to get back to sleep through the noise outside. (Did I mention that this was going on before 5 a.m.? And that I dragged myself out of bed to take a picture of the hail for you fine folks? That's how much I care.)

26 May 2011

Flora Focus: Winecup

Winecups aren't on our landscaping plan, but Steve was drawn to them at the nursery, so we picked one up. We share a desire for flowers in the garden, so it was fine by me that he chose this trailing plant with little flowers that look like the top half of a glass of red wine.

This is what it looked like not long after we planted it. Then it went through a rough patch, where it lost all of its flowers to a rainstorm, but they're gradually coming back.

As always, here's the dirt on winecups (minus info about mature size, which is about a foot tall and 4-5' across):

Had I noticed that the leaves resemble, as the tag says, hairy hands? No. Am I creeped out by it now? Yes.

25 May 2011

Beat the Heat

A couple of weeks ago, after one of the sweet neighbor girls brought me a popsicle while I was slaving away in the hot, hot sun, I had an epiphany. I always came back into the house feeling totally overheated, but we never seemed to have anything tasty that hit the spot like that popsicle. I would usually drink a glass of juice, which was nice, but we don't tend to keep dessert-type treats in the house.

And then I remembered something I bought at Williams-Sonoma a few years ago. I fished it out of the cabinet, filled four of its compartments with orange juice and the other four with tangerine juice, and stuck popsicle sticks into each compartment (held in place with the lid that came with it). The next time I came in from working in the yard, I had popsicles, glorious popsicles waiting for me:

I felt like a genius.

I have since seen a similar set at Target that has individual plastic lids with built-in sticks and little cups to catch any melted juice. After working outside (or exercising, or just hanging out) on a hot day, there's nothing better. Or easier.

24 May 2011

Flora Focus: Lacey Oak

Last week, after rescheduling once because of torrential rain (yay for our sod!), we finally got our trees. The first was a lacey oak, which we planned to put in the middle of the front yard. Although installation was included in the price, I had already dug most of the hole because we weren't entirely sure there wasn't a sprinkler line running through the area where we planned to put it, and I had more confidence in my ability to dig carefully (and readjust if necessary) than in their patience with such a process. But the hole worked out fine, and the tree is really lovely.

I've heard the shape of lacey oaks described as "picturesquely irregular" (or something like that), so it should have an interesting shape as it grows. It's a small variety of oak, likely to stay under 30 feet tall and 30 feet across. Here are its specs (from the Natural Gardener, a great local nursery -- but not where we got the tree):

Two more things:
1. Tree people love lacey oaks. They originally came across our radar when the city offered us up to three free trees last year. We asked our arborist what type he recommended (of the four or five offerings), and he gushed about laceys. Unfortunately, they ended up not being available through the program, but by the time we learned that, we were sold on the concept of a lacey oak. When we went on our nursery tour to find just the right one, the guy there (whom I assume -- based on nothing more than his relative youth (25ish), his enthusiasm for plants, and sheer geography -- was a recent graduate of the Texas A&M horticulture program) proclaimed that, if he had a house, he'd definitely get a lacey oak. I don't quite know what the specific appeal is for tree professionals, except maybe that they're less common than some of the other oaks. And they have bluish leaves. Allegedly. They're looking pretty green to me:

2. The trunk of the tree is currently about 2" thick. This size was recommended to us by our arborist, who told us that 2" was the "sweet spot" for size versus cost in most trees. We don't expect it to be super-fast growing, but that's okay. We plan to be here for a long time....

23 May 2011

Pink and Green

Check out this fun succulent:

It's called tri-color sedum. I'm not sure why -- looks like two colors to me.

Which happen to be my college colors, by the way. Yes, pink and green are the colors for Sweet Briar College, a women's college of about 600 students in rural Virginia. (When I was in school, pink and green was seriously out of style, so t-shirts and sports uniforms, etc. tended to be green and white. Over the last several years, pink and green has reemerged as a fabulous, fun color combination, which has been great for Sweet Briar girls.)

Sedum is in our landscaping plan for the narrow strip of ground between the (someday) back patio and the wall of the screened porch. There are many varieties of sedum, but this one caught my attention and won't let go.

But back to Sweet Briar. The school is named after the plantation that used to occupy its 3,300 acres, and the plantation was named for the Sweet Briar rose (sometimes spelled Sweet Brier) that grew there:

(Picture from the Antique Rose Emporium.)

Can't wait to have both in our garden!

22 May 2011

Flora Focus: Abelia

Our landscaping plan had a total of six dwarf pittosporums in the front planting area, but I wasn't too excited for boring green bushes, so we were on the lookout for a substitution that would still provide some color during the winter. What we found were two different varieties of abelia. (Apparently "glossy" is a commonly used variety, but we wanted something less common...and less green.)

First, for the front of the porch, kaleidoscope abelia's variegated leaves grabbed us:

They will grow larger but stay low to the ground, and the tag promises flowers and nice fall color:

Next, for the area along the side of the garage facing the entry, we went with canyon creek abelia:

It will grow a little taller but will also have flowers (and is already displaying some colorful new growth). Here are its specs:

Should be more interesting than a boring green sea of pittosporum:

21 May 2011

Attempted Amphibicide (Frogslaughter?)

The other day I decided to fine-tune the position of the boulder in the backyard. (We set it on top of a small pile of soil to make it easy to lay edging and sod near/under it, and the time has come to nudge it down into its permanent spot.) Since it weighs about 600 pounds, I got out the rock bar and started trying to wiggle it into position. And then I saw these guys:

Apparently they have been living in the cranny under the boulder. So continuing to push the boulder around with the rock bar was going to kill someone. (So I stopped.)

What's worse is that these are probably the same frogs (toads?) I almost murdered in a rainbarrel-related near-drowning incident last week.

Oh -- and a minute later another baby appeared:

Cute, huh?

20 May 2011

Flora Focus: Columbine

This is a columbine.

If I hadn't just proclaimed oleander my favorite flower, I'd say this was my favorite. So I'll just say that I love love love columbines and was thrilled to learn that they're drought-tolerant and City of Austin-approved. Columbines are the state flower of Colorado, so of course they have a special place in my heart. (That's also why I love Coors. No, wait...state pride only goes so far.) That said, Texan columbines are a bit different from the ones you see in Colorado. When I think of the Colorado state flower, this is what comes to mind:

(Photo from here.)

They're a couple of inches across and look...well, like regular, healthy flowers. By contrast, our red "Hill Country" columbines are about an inch long (there isn't much "across" about them) and look sort of anemic:

The tag sweetly described the upside-down flowers as "nodding":

Our yellow columbines aren't in bloom, but some yellows I saw last weekend on the Inside Austin Garden Tour were a bit bigger (and less nodding) than the reds, so we'll see next spring.

But back to our columbines. We bought three reds and three (bloomless) yellows and planted them on either side of the walkway leading to the front porch:

We're still lacking a walkway (it's on the list), but the columbines are seem to be taking pretty well:

Hopefully next spring will bring an explosion of both red and yellow columbines.
The red closest to the house has grown a lot since we planted it, and there has been a steady stream of flowers...albeit tiny, anemic, drowsy flowers....

Since columbines are one of the few flowering drought-tolerant perennials that (I hear) actually thrive in the shade, if our barberry bushes don't do well in the sun-less nook in front of the bunny room, it would be an easy decision to replace them with more columbines.

19 May 2011

Hungry Bunnies

The bunnies LOVE to eat. It's their very favorite thing. And one of their favorite things to eat is Italian parsley.

I'm not going to say that keeping three bunnies stocked with Italian parsley is sending us to the poorhouse (it costs about a dollar for a bunch that lasts a few days), but it is the cause of more trips to the grocery store than anything else we buy, so we decided to try growing it ourselves. (Look at us, going all Michelle Obama!)

This is a precursor to two things: growing Italian parsley (hopefully) in our vegetable garden, and (possibly) growing annuals from seeds (because Steve really wants to add some bigger pops of color to our yard but I don't want to spend a lot on a bunch of plants that we know are only going to last a few months). Anyway, I can't wait to feed the guys Italian parsley that was specially grown for them.

We'll report back as the project gets underway.