30 June 2011

AmEx Paid For Our Appliance Repair!

A few weeks ago, our super-fancy high-efficiency washing machine stopped working. No problem, right, since it was still within the one-year warranty? NOPE. We had bought it during the year we were renting (the house we were living in had a washer and dryer, but the washer was...suboptimal, so when we found a good deal, we bought the set we were going to buy once we moved anyway. So the washer was about a year and a half old when it stopped lighting up, beeping affectionately, and water-wisely washing our clothes. (Terrible timing, too, 'cause it happened while we were in the thick of landscaping, and every day meant a new set of horrendously dirty clothes. So maybe it was more than a few weeks ago. Whatever.)

We're still irritated that a year-and-a-half-old washing machine would break down -- and especially that it would break down to the tune of FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS ($265 for the part and $125 for labor, plus tax) -- but what softened the blow was Steve figuring out that we paid for the washer on our Costco American Express card, and one of the card's benefits (aside from a percentage back on all purchases) is an extended warranty. American Express will double the length of any manufacturer's warranty up to a year. It took us a while to figure out how it actually works, but in the end, we determined that it's not actually a warranty in the sense of them sending someone out to fix your broken item; rather, you have to get a repair quote or actually get the repair done, and they will reimburse you up to the price you paid on the card for the item. If it's not fixable, they'll give you back what you paid. (Oh, and they require a copy of the receipt, the credit card statement on which the charge appears, and the manufacturer's written warranty. Fortunately that's one area in which we are really organized -- perhaps the only area in which we're really organized -- so it wasn't too difficult to track those documents down.) We lost some time trying to figure out how the warranty would work and what we needed to do, but eventually we got the washer fixed and pretty quickly thereafter received a check to cover the repair cost.

We've always been big fans of our American Express card, but this benefit reaffirmed our love. As stores like Target and Lowe's have started giving discounts (generally 5%) for using their own credit card, we've started using those cards (paying them off every month, of course), but the washing machine incident made us realize that it's important to pay for anything with a warranty on a card that has this valuable benefit.

28 June 2011

Back to the Screened Porch

Saturday was our house's one-year anniversary. And of the 368 days we have now lived here, we've spent exactly zero minutes enjoying outdoor living on our screened porch. Not that we haven't wanted to. It's just that it has always looked like some variation of this:

The sad part is that we actually do have patio furniture. We bought a table, bench, and chairs during construction, but we have been needing to buy and apply teak oil to keep them from turning grey, so we haven't put them into use yet. The pieces are all still sitting in the garage where we put them the day we moved in last year (along with a little shelf we bought slightly more recently from World Market):

The series of events that need to -- or logically should -- take place in a particular order before we can get the space set up has been part of the delay. But with our energy for landscaping waning, we're finally turning our focus to the porch so we can alternate between hot days in the sun working on the yard and hot days in the shade working on the porch.

After a year and a bunch of tilling and earth-moving (two undeniably dusty activities), there was a layer of dust covering everything, but after clearing out a bunch of stuff and going over the space with the Shop-Vac, we have ourselves a clean slate. (A clean slate with a few errant bunnies...not that bunnies can ever really be errant.)

Another task we need to get on is refinishing the natural wood of the window screen frames and door (a year of direct afternoon sun has taken its toll). But before that, the trim desperately needed a deep clean. My apologies if you're eating lunch as you check out this before:

And here's the more appetizing (or at least less unappetizing) after:

Now I just need to get my hands on the finish product, and we'll be in business. (I thought I had found it at a paint store down the street, but they no longer carry it. Then I located another shop, had the good sense to call ahead to confirm that they had it, and went...only to find the store closed (like forever). Apparently the closed store forwarded its calls to another store waaaaay across town and didn't feel the need to make that clear when I called. So the quest continues.)

In a fit of optimism that we'll actually get it done, we've also been shopping for accessories. The guest bed has become the staging area.

Why all of the cushions? With the furniture still in boxes, I'm not 100% sure of the exact dimensions of the seats, so I've been buying every cushion that catches my attention (and passes the comfort test, which a surprising number of cushions don't.) Whichever ones fit the chairs will be the keepers. (That's another part of the urgency. One set is from Marshalls, which has a 30-day return policy, so we need to get this figured out in the next few weeks.) I love love love the green paisley ones, but I know that tan will be easier to accessorize (throw pillows, tablescapes, etc.), so I'll be happy whichever way it works out -- as long as something fits. (I'll probably have to make something for the bench, which is extra-long.)

Then there are our ongoing plans for the walls, floor, and ceiling. More on those as they develop.

27 June 2011

Good News About Recycling Styrofoam

A while ago, I looked into recycling styrofoam and learned that it can be recycled, but it's costly and there aren't many places that do it -- and Austin's curbside, single-stream pickup definitely doesn't. But then a neighbor told me about a place not far from us that specializes in styrofoam products. That was great news, as it was time to finally recycle all of the boxes from our light fixtures, which we had stashed up in the garage attic (you know, in case of a packing material emergency).

The boxes are full of styrofoam, and not only did I not want to send it all to the landfill, but it would probably have taken three months of garbage days to send it all away in our little garbage bin. So Cycled Plastics, just a few miles north of us, was the perfect solution.

They accept styrofoam as well as various other plastic products, and it's really easy to drop off at their warehouse. A sign on the front door points to a bunch of bins just inside the door where everything is collected.

And the other day, I saw this sign proudly proclaiming that Cycled Plastics has adopted a stretch of road near their facility:

So it's a company that does good for the world in more than one way. Anyway, last week, I loaded my car up with styrofoam. The funny thing? I was going to Dallas for the day and planned to make my drop-off on the way back from the airport, so I drove all the way out there with my car looking like this:

(It was kind of dangerous, actually. I couldn't see anything out the back. I have no idea how bus drivers and truckers do it. Fortunately, it was early and there weren't many cars on the road.)

Those cardboard boxes? Also full of styrofoam:

It was seriously packed in (there was so much that it didn't all fit, so I'll have to make another trip in the next couple of weeks):

My "passenger" spent the day in the car at airport parking:

Glad to have that dropped off and out of my life -- and to know that it's going to be made into new styrofoam packaging for a stereo or glassware or someone else's light fixtures.

If you're not in Austin, Google might be able to point you to a facility that recycles styrofoam.

Note from the future: Unfortunately, that facility is now closed, but HDI Plastics, Inc. has a drop-off location at 5330 Fleming Court #100 (near the airport).

24 June 2011

Thirty-Five Dollars

I may have overpaid, but I was so excited to find this sad old cabinet with a great, unique shape.

A couple of coats of paint and some new knobs, and I will have myself an entry table. Or liquor cabinet. Or entry table where I store my liquor.

23 June 2011

Flora Focus: Yellow Bells

Yellow bells are, for me at least, one of Austin's quintessential drought-tolerant flowering bushes. They get about 6-7' tall and nearly as wide, and when they really get going, they're packed with bright yellow bell-shaped flowers like this one:

They have among the largest flowers of the native drought-tolerant species, and the density of the flowers is also pretty extraordinary. Plus they're yellow. So I pretty much always knew that we'd have at least one of these plants. Our landscape designer didn't include any, but at our last meeting I asked about adding one behind our agave, and she sketched one in.

Then, when shopping for plants, I was looking for a one-gallon yellow bell but found 4" pots instead for just a few bucks each. On a whim, I decided to buy four. (Maybe they were four for ten dollars? I don't remember.) Anyway, I knew that starting smaller would mean they would take longer to reach a good size, but I'd been spending so much on plants (and so much time digging holes for plants) that I was happy to put in the time to save some cash (and digging effort).

The plan had called for a typical agave -- huge and green (or bluish-green) -- but when we decided on the variegated desmettiana, we landed on the happy accident of the yellow bells perfectly complementing the green and yellow of our special little agave.

(Imagine the yellow bells bigger and yellower. And swaying gently in the breeze. And while we're imagining things, imagine that it's a perfect 75 degrees out....)

But what to do with the other three plants? Our landscape designer had planned for a small planting bed at the back of the guest bedroom, containing another plumbago plant, a rose, and another tall grass (similar to the fountain grass we put in front of the garage). But that bed would pretty much only be visible from the vegetable garden area (the window is too high for it to even be visible from the guest room), so it didn't seem like a space where we needed to get all creative with different types of plants. Three yellow bells back there would do just fine. So I "edged" a curvy bed with river rock and planted the three yellow bells in a line.

By the way, it absolutely amazes me that flowers know how to grow themselves just right every time. Yellow bell flowers start out as these little green buds, then grow bigger and turn yellow, then keep growing, growing, growing until they finally pop open into perfect yellow, uh, bells.

I know they're pretty small and sparse right now, but they've actually grown a lot just since I planted them, and I'm optimistic that yellow bells will be just the thing for the agave corner and the bed behind the guest room.

22 June 2011

My Mind Has Been in the Gutter Lately

Last night it rained for the first time in about a month. Which means that last night was about the fifth time in the last year that it has mattered that we don't have downspouts on our gutters. (Yesterday it was also under 100 degrees for the first time in over two weeks, but it still felt stiflingly, crushingly hot for this month's Splash and Dash.)

We went with round galvalume (galvanized aluminum) gutters to match our metal roof and to leave our exposed rafter tails partially visible, but we only got two downspouts, in the least visible locations (the back corners of the house).

But we didn't want to clutter up the rest of the exterior with big, bulky downspouts, so we planned to add rain chains to channel rainwater daintily to the ground.

We still need to buy them. They're pricey! (And we still need to stake that tree.)

So most of our gutters are still naked as can be:

The gutter installer made these little holes for the rain chains to connect to:

But they're not big enough for water to flow through in a heavy rain, and more ends up spilling over the sides than going through the hole:

I had thought this was just a hazard of having rain chains, but then I saw a house on the Cool House Tour that made me realize the holes were simply inadequate. This is what we need:

(Minus the debris inside.)

Fortunately, the Cool House Tour book includes lots of source information, so I called the gutter contractor and arranged to have some of those outlets made to fit my chosen chain (the same aluminum "extra link" style as that house has) so I can have my gutter guy come back and cut the holes to the proper size. Then I'll pop the outlets in (and seal the seam, I suppose) then attach the chains. And then, the next time it rains, the gutters will look like this:

And the water will hit the ground with a lot less force. (It's advised to have a bucket or dish or pile of rocks or something to catch the water and further soften the landing. We're going the rock route.)

So that's the status of our very belated rain chain project. Hopefully we're nearing the end of the era of visitors asking why we don't have downspouts. (Otherwise, we'll have to find less observant people to hang out with.)

21 June 2011

Flora Focus: Skyflower

For a spot at the back corner of the house, where the side pathway leads to the main back planting bed, we chose this bright, happy skyflower:

Our landscaping plan called for a pineapple guava bush, which looks a little something like this:

(Picture from www.growgreen.org.)

We never saw one in person, and the pictures weren't really doing it for us, so when Steve decided (on his birthday, no less) that he wanted a skyflower instead, we went for it. We didn't really think the substitution all the way through, but fortunately, it will be roughly the same size as the pineapple guava (5-9' tall x 5-9' across) and is also an evergreen, so it should do the job just fine. Here it is in the ground not long after we planted it:

It has some growing to do before it will qualify as a shrub (it's currently about six inches tall), but its little flowers really couldn't be prettier.

20 June 2011

It's Too Hot to Leave the House

Yesterday marked approximately our one thousandth consecutive day over 100 degrees. Or at least the 15th. At any rate, it was hot. I did a short triathlon, which started at 7:30 in about 80 degree heat, and by the time I finished, it was a sunny, sweaty 85. It was also really windy. (See? Even the word "really" looks like it's blowing away -- which it probably would have if I were typing this outside.) The wind was so bad that, although both my equipment and my overall fitness have greatly improved since I raced that course in 2007, my time was a minute slower. Anyway, the race was fun despite swimming through mini-whitecaps, riding into the wind almost the whole way, losing a few seconds to the rookie error of going the wrong way as I brought my bike back into the transition area, and running in direct sun and yet more wind.

There are cooler temperatures on the horizon later this week (highs "only" in the mid-90s), but for now, I'm pretty much over the great outdoors. But fortunately, we have lots of windows, and unlike the line of sight snafus detailed in this post of yore, the placement of the Basham's Party Pink crape myrtle ended up pretty much perfect. And the best part is that I was able to take all of these pictures without leaving the 78-degree comfort of the house (yes, as long as the humidity is kept down, 78 degrees is quite comfortable). Here's the crape myrtle from the master bedroom:

First thing every morning, we peek outside to check out its ever-increasing floral display:

The guest room looks out onto it as well:

And there's a nice view from the kitchen sink (which also is pretty much the view from the screened porch and -- although farther -- from the living area):

If only there were a way to do the watering from inside, too. (Oh wait, there is. Finish the vegetable garden beds so the sprinkler guy can come back and set up the drip system, which will then be controlled by the automated irrigation system. More on that -- and the possible delay/opportunity there -- soon).

17 June 2011

Sometimes We Make Mistakes....

Remember the six columbines I planted flanking our (imaginary) front walkway?

Columbines like shade, so it made sense to put them right in front of the house, where they would get a bit of morning sun and then spend the long, hot afternoon in the shadow of the house.

Or so I thought.

Shortly after taking that picture, one of them started to turn yellow:

And yellower. I couldn't figure out what was going on. It was living in the exact same conditions as the others.

Except that, one day, I was outside around 5 p.m. and saw this:

Because of the shape of the roofline and the nook in front of the bunny room, that columbine was getting sun all day long, while the other two on that side managed to stay in the shadow of one of the columns. I pulled out the overheated columbine and moved it into the bunny room nook, where it was sure to have shade most of the day, but it's still pretty touch-and-go. And now, with the solstice nearly upon us and 100 degree heat every single day for as long as I can remember (can you tell I'm getting tired of it?), the others aren't looking so good, either.

Ironically, that transplanted columbine is right next to our barberry, which prefers full sun and which I thought I might have to move if it couldn't survive in the shade. It seems to be doing fine (maybe not growing as quickly as it would have in the sun, and maybe not as colorful as it could be), but it might soon find itself with six little columbine friends on life support. On the bright side, I can imagine that area becoming a bit of a tribute to Colorado, with the state flower and a river rock "dry creek bed" area to channel rainwater away (if we ever get rain again). But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Only time will tell whether any columbines will survive this excruciatingly hot, dry (and did I mention hot?) summer.

16 June 2011

Flora Focus: Basil (and Other Herbs)

I picked up a sweet basil plant on the Inside Austin Garden Tour last month. Ideally, it would be planted in our vegetable garden, but since we still don't have a vegetable garden (and I don't think basil would grow in the pile of gravel that's currently occupying that space), I popped it into the main back bed between the lavender and the rosemary. Oh yeah, we also planted rosemary...which makes that part of the yard smell like a Macaroni Grill.

Now, I've tried growing basil inside several times, and it always dies. Every time. (You'd think I'd stop buying the plantable kind and just spend two bucks for enough pre-cut fresh basil for whatever I was making, but no....) So I expected the same sad demise for my outdoor basil. And I thought that was being borne out when I saw some of the leaves turning yellow not long after I planted it.

I thought the direct afternoon sun was probably too harsh, and as much as I watered it, it wasn't looking any better. Then I googled around (what did people do before Google?) and learned that the bottom leaves turn yellow not because of too much sun but rather because of too little sun -- the thriving upper foliage shades the bottom leaves, leaving them looking kind of anemic. So it turns out I'm actually a pretty decent basil farmer. I didn't take a picture of the plant when I first got it, but it's about twice as big and twice as full now. And it's starting to flower (which I hear bees really dig, and we're in the middle of a bee crisis, so every little bit helps).

By the way, our biggest lavender plant (one of the two Goodwin Creek specimens) suddenly shriveled up and died a couple of weeks ago.

It's our second casualty (the first was one of our verbenas that never really seemed to take after we planted it). I don't know what happened to the verbena (except that it followed the shrivel-and-die routine), but I suspect that the lavender was the victim of a peeing. (By a neighborhood cat, the theory goes.) Incidentally, both plants we have lost were small ones that came in 3" pots. If they were both peed on, which is possible, it makes sense that a larger plant would have stood more of a chance. Oh well. We got both of these plants at a regular nursery, but did you know that Lowe's and Home Depot guarantee plants for a year? If we'd gotten them there, it would have been simple to pop them back into the pot and return them for a refund or exchange.

The Lowe's plant warranty, by the way, is why it was an easy decision to give our second oleander (the one that was half-dead when we got it, but priced as though it were four-fifths dead) a chance...and it's doing great:

Lest you think it still looks weird (which, I'll admit, it does...and it actually has fewer flowers than it did when we brought it home), here's a reminder of where it started:

And just because I love it, the one flower it's currently sporting:

And the smaller oleander next to it (Turner's Carnival), which is all abloom:

15 June 2011

Benjamin (Cute as a) Button

Once our new little bunny friend finally had a permanent home (ours) and a definitive gender (boy), it was high time to give him a real name. We racked our brains for a while, joking about needing to trade in our girl bunny name book for a boy bunny name book, until "Benjamin" eventually came to us and seemed perfect.

Oh, and Benjamin has a chore, too. Every morning and every evening, I let him out of his cage, and he hops with me to the bunny room (he's still not living there yet), where he helps me feed Millie and Dash (er, I feed them while he hops around and over my feet). Then I get a scoop of his food and he hops back to his cage for his meal. Here he is in action (helping me deliver papaya treats to Millie and Dash):

In case you're wondering, it took five takes to get a clean video. Oh, and that's the makeshift cage that Lynn, who found him, lovingly cobbled together for him; we're still working on building a new, larger cage for Millie and Dash so Ben can move into their current one. His temporary quarters are tight, but he has liberal roaming privileges (some of which we did not grant him as much as he claimed for himself, such as when we woke up Saturday morning to find him waiting patiently at our bedroom door).

14 June 2011

The (Solar) Power of Fifty Cents

Let's talk solar panels.

Back when we were planning and starting to build the house, we were definitely going to go solar. Then, as we began trying to rein in our construction costs, we weren't sure. We had conduit run from the attic to the area where the electric service comes into the house so it would be easy to tie in later, and we were careful not to have any roof penetrations (other than the kitchen's solar tubes) on the main area of the backside of the roof.

(I was shocked that we didn't seem to have any other pictures of the back of the roof. I thought I had construction pictures from every possible angle.)

Then we got our first electric bill and realized that our house is already so energy-efficient that we probably couldn't justify spending thousands and thousands of dollars for solar panels. And so we've been merrily rolling along since last summer, spending no more than about $70 (and usually a lot less) on actual electric usage each month.

And then I learned that the city's rebate on solar panels has been temporarily increased from $2.50 to $3.00 per watt. (I assume they had a certain amount budgeted for solar rebates for this fiscal year, which is winding down, and they haven't had as many takers as anticipated, so they're trying to use the remainder to entice folks who are on the fence -- like us -- to go for it.) As we're likely looking at a 5-6 kilowatt system, that amounts to a rebate of $15,000-18,000, or about $3,000 more than the rebate was just a few months ago. Definitely enough to get us interested. And since we saved a ton by doing most of the landscaping ourselves, it might make sense to invest that savings in energy-efficiency. (Or, as I read on a local solar company's website, stop renting energy production and start owning it.) So maybe our house will soon be looking a little more like this one (from the Cool House Tour earlier this month):

(Fortunately, our house is situated so that the panels will go on the back. I always love seeing houses proudly wearing their solar panels facing the street, but we went to great lengths to keep the front of our roof pristine -- including extraordinary measures to ensure that the fireplace would exhaust on the backside -- and are glad solar panels won't be visible from the front.)

We have just (re-) started our solar research, and it isn't at all certain that we're going to go for it (even with the rebate, and the federal tax credit, it will still be a huge outlay), but I'm excited about the possibility. After all, we opted for an electric dryer and an electric water heater -- both of which are more expensive to power than their gas counterparts -- with the intention that solar panels would make them free to operate.

Anyway, yesterday we took the first step toward making solar energy a reality at our green house. I'll update as we learn more and make the big decision.

13 June 2011

Flora Focus: Roses!

One of the parts of the yard that we're most excited about is our rose garden. On our landscaping plan, there was supposed to be a huge agave in the corner of the backyard between the screened porch and the master bedroom, and then three roses next to the agave under our bedroom window...but the plan didn't match up with the layout of our house, so the roses would have ended up roughly outside of our bathroom sinks. And the point was that we would be able to see them from our room. But we didn't want an agave back there anyway, so it was an easy decision to leave it out and slide the roses over under the window, where they were supposed to have been in the first place.

And then, when we started shopping for roses, things got a little out of control.

We each had certain ideas about what we wanted in the rose department. Steve knew he wanted a red rose that would be tall enough to be seen from our bedroom window (which is several feet off the ground). I wanted a Sweet Briar rose, a mutabilis rose, and some kind of yellow rose. And a pink knockout rose would be nice (since they're easy to grow and such prolific bloomers), although it wouldn't get tall enough to be visible from our bedroom.

Our first trip to the nursery that turned out to be our favorite for roses yielded some good info but just one purchase -- a mutabilis, which I had seen around our neighborhood:

It's a flat, five-petaled rose (which Steve has a hard time seeing as a "real" rose), and there are three colors on the same bush -- peach, light pink, and darker pink. What's really neat about the mutabilis is that each rose turns all three colors in succession (hence the name "mutabilis"). It was also named by Texas A&M University as the "Earth Kind" rose of 2005 for being extremely drought-tolerant and otherwise well-suited to Texas. Since it grows full and wide, we decided that it would be nice in the corner by the screened porch.

On our second rose-hunting expedition, Steve found two red varieties -- cadenza and red cascade. Cadenza has big red roses and will get tall enough to see from the window. Red cascade is a climbing rose, which we hope to be able (after it has grown a bit) to wrap around a trellis for a tower of small red flowers. Steve also indulged my desire for yellow and found the buff beauty (which is more peach than yellow...not that it's had any flowers yet). So, with the mutabilis, that brought us to four roses.

And then there was the Sweet Briar rose, which I really wanted to round out our rose garden. Fortunately, it was easy to locate in town.

It hasn't had any flowers yet, and I'm not sure it will until next spring -- it's a single-bloomer and may have already done its single-blooming for this year -- but two things about it are really striking. I'd never really thought too much about the name of my college (Sweet Briar), except that it was named after a pink, five-petaled rose that grew there, but after spending some time with it, I have realized that the name of this rose is dead on. Even without flowers, its branches have the sweetest aroma, and it's much, much thornier than any of our other roses.

"Sweet." "Briar." I get it.

So, with five rose plants, we cut ourselves off and got to planting. We started by swapping out some of the compost-and-garden-soil mix we had spread with rose soil to provide better drainage for the roses. Then, because we've already had tons of weeds coming up, we decided to cover the area with landscaping fabric to keep the weeds at bay. (The down side is that the fabric will keep the plants that easily re-seed from doing so. But honestly, we'd never have time to keep up with the mutant weeds that we've had going on, and we don't want to use chemicals, so this seemed like the only option.)

Following the advice of a friend from law school, we laid full sheets of landscaping fabric, then cut X's where the roses would go and dug the holes (as deep as the pot, and twice as wide...or close).

In they went.

Then mulch.

And then, after they were settled in, we went to Lowe's for more mulch and found that all of their roses were on clearance. (Yes, since it's been about 100 degrees for the last few weeks, planting season has ended in Texas.) We couldn't resist buying three more roses -- a pink double knockout, a red (actually bright pink) knockout, and a Grandma's (yellow) -- for a total of just $19. Since they're all going to stay shorter than the others, we put them in a second row in front of the first. And they've proven to be the best bloomers -- we've had roses non-stop since a day or two after we cut off all of the old flowers.

So that's our little rose garden. We look forward to seeing each one grow and fill in with flowers, and I'm sure we'll add to our collection in future years, but it's a start:

One last rose- (and Sweet Briar-) related note: One of my creative writing professors, Carrie Brown, wrote a book called Rose's Garden that is probably the most beautiful piece of literature I've ever read. (And while we're talking books, Audubon's Watch, written by her husband, John Gregory Brown (also a creative writing professor at my college) is an amazingly complex, dark piece of biographical fiction that's well worth a read. And rounding out this installment of Devon's Book Club is Raising Holy Hell, written by no one I know (Bruce Olds) but assigned to me by John Brown during my biographical fiction class (which he was inspired to teach by his own process of writing Audubon's Watch...and which, incidentally, is about (the other) John Brown -- written in a way that's more interesting than you would ever think a book about an abolitionist's raid on Harper's Ferry could be).