30 November 2011

A Visit from the Plant Stork

Our agave had a baby.

Since we've been told that the variety of agave we chose (desmettiana variegata) isn't likely to survive the winter, we wanted to be sure we can keep the baby going so we can replace the big one next year if necessary.

But how to separate it? There's no good way. We dug out around it, but it was solidly attached to the mama. Eventually, we used the sharp edge of a shovel to cut it off. The baby had three long roots attached to it (forgot to get a picture, but they looked just like the main roots from when we planted the agave over the summer). We put the baby in a pot with a mix of half garden soil and half sand:

It's inside for now because we've been having cool nights, but I'm sure it will make its way back outside to enjoy the sun....

In the meantime, we've been enjoying its interesting shape and delicate yellow stripes:

26 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Indeed

We had a beautiful day for Thanksgiving, so when my friend Kelli (who was coming with her parents, bringing our total to eight) asked if we would be eating out on the porch...um, YES.

Our dining table only seats six, so we had planned to set up a second table in a square configuration in the dining area (which we did last Christmas, and it makes for great conversation), but after Kelli's suggestion (genius, pure GENIUS), we instead took our dining table out to the porch and put it in line with the table out there:

The decorations? The Twiggy candleholder from Crate and Barrel:
with gourd candles and a splash of gorgeous fall leaves on the side.

Between the venue and the company of family and friends, it was a perfect Thanksgiving.

23 November 2011

Window into My Soul

Here's the bottom line: I'm lazy. I'm unlikely to clean anything if it isn't super-easy. So I'm always looking for super-easy ways to clean things. (Because, despite my laziness, I still like things clean.)

It probably doesn't surprise you that our windows haven't been cleaned since before we moved in last year. (We did the final clean ourselves to save the $2,000+ we would have had to pay for the builder's cleaning crew to do it. What can I say? I'm motivated by cash. Especially when you consider that we probably only spent five to ten hours cleaning, so that's a pretty good hourly rate.) Not only did our first window-cleaning effort take some time and a lot of paper towels and Windex, but we also had to haul a ladder all around the exterior (especially the back, where the lot slopes slightly down and the windows are therefore higher off the ground). But it was definitely time to clean them again, after a year of general dust and grime and a variety of smudges (like this bird-related one):

Most of our windows are double-hung, so we can tilt them inward to clean them from inside (not that that means I've actually done it), but the fixed-glass picture windows and the various daylighting windows can only be cleaned from outside. So I was on the lookout for a way to clean them without needing to haul the ladder around, and I realized that a long-handled squeegee that also had some kind of scrubber might fit the bill. I looked at Amazon.com and Lowe's but decided that this Michael Graves model from Target looked most like what I had in mind:

The handle extends to more than five feet, which is perfect to reach the tops of our windows. And although the squeegee and the scrubber can each be screwed into the handle (one at a time), they also nest in a way that allows access to both at the same time. So it's really easy to scrub with the fuzzy scrubber side...

...and then flip it around and squeegee the window dry:

So easy.

I realized after I got it home that I hadn't paid attention to the price, and I was shocked to find that it was only $9.79. (After seeing how easy it is to use, I would have paid three times that.) And there are two bonuses that I didn't even realize but that totally appeal to this fundamentally lazy earth-lover. First, I don't need to spend any time cleaning the cleaner -- it comes off and goes in the washing machine. (That's also why I've started using damp rags to clean our tile floors -- I just toss them in the washer when I'm finished, and they come out clean with zero effort from me.) Second, I don't have to use any chemicals (or paper products). Just some water will loosen pretty much all of the grime (although I used a few drops of Mrs. Meyers Clean Day liquid soap on the first window).

Of course, I can't scrub-and-squeegee the insides of the windows (or the ones inside the screened porch, unfortunately), so I'm stuck with chemical cleaners there, but we've graduated from Windex to the product the pros use:

We learned about Sprayway from the guys who installed the glass wall in our bathroom, and whether it is truly the "world's best," it definitely works way better than Windex.

So there you have our window-cleaning shortcuts. If you have any lazy-cleaning tips to share, I'll just be lying around waiting....

21 November 2011


Over the weekend, some shopping took me past our favorite supplier of landscaping materials, Whittlesey Landscape Supplies, so I stopped in and picked up about nine dollars of small moss rocks (similar to the larger one we put in the backyard). They're for the narrow strip between the screened porch and the someday-patio, where our landscape designer suggested a succulent garden.

(The green edging in the picture above -- also from Whittlesey -- delineates the edge of the someday-patio (which will probably be made of bricks or pavers). Before we put it in, we need to install the rainwater collection system, which will include a pipe running under the patio. By the way, after some back-and-forth regarding my pitiful drawings, the city approved our rebate application last week, so I made a down payment on a cistern from Texas Metal Cisterns. Unfortunately, their wares are very much in demand, so we won't get ours until March...but at least the weather should be pretty good for rainwater collection system installation by then.)

Back to the rocks. I placed them semi-randomly, knowing that I'll probably have to move them as we add succulents and work out natural-looking layout. So far we only have these five Autumn Joy sedums.

I envision these taller sedums among a lot of shorter, spreading varieties in a pink and green color scheme (like the "tri-color" sedum I came across earlier this year).

Here's an Autumn Joy up close. This one has started sprouting on top in the few weeks since I planted it (a good sign).

Autumn Joy gets fairly tall (for a sedum). The name comes from the fact that it has salmon-colored flowers in the fall, but so far I haven't seen it. This one had these buds when I bought it a month or so ago, but they haven't developed into anything that could really be called flowers:

Although the whole succulent garden should probably wait on the patio installation, I was inspired to buy the Autumn Joys when Lowe's had them on sale for $2.50 each (I loved how Lowe's had different plants on sale in their weekly ads all summer and was sad when fall came to the north and the sales stopped, even though there's plenty of time left to plant down here). That's also how I ended up with eight lamb's ears, four of which I planted in the backyard last month. Sadly, in the time it took me to put the other four in the ground, Lowe's cleared out their garden center to gear up for Christmas tree season. But over the weekend I finally planted the last four lamb's ears by the entry (two on each side of the someday-walkway):

Interestingly, one of the tags on one of the lamb's ears translated the name into Spanish as "oreja de conejo," or "bunny's ear." (Sure enough, the leaves are totally reminiscent of Miss Millie's floppers.) I'm optimistic that being in the ground will help them to perk up and fill in like the ones in the backyard did. The three we put together looked like this when we planted them last month:

Six weeks later, they've become lush and full:

And they're sporting a yard bunny, 'cause that's how we roll. Orejas de conejo, indeed.

16 November 2011

I Like Ipe

We've been making slow but steady progress outside, and last weekend we took a big step forward in the screened porch -- a big barefoot step, because the formerly dirty, dusty concrete floor is now nice, clean wood:

We ordered these wood floor tiles waaaay back in August, but between the solar installers using the porch to store their equipment and then plain old inertia, it's taken us a while to actually get them in place.

This wood is ipe (pronounced "E-pay" -- not at all like "I like Ike"), and the slats are attached to a plastic grid that allows the tiles to snap together. (Why didn't I take a picture of a tile and the grid?) They're most commonly seen in a 1'x1' format, laid out either straight or in a parquet pattern -- and Ikea sometimes has 1'x1' tiles that look like a 6" parquet, although they're not ipe -- but when I realized that I could put two 1'x2' tiles together to make an extra-large parquet, I knew that was the configuration for us.

Oh, but before you go getting all excited that we were able to cross a project off our to-do list...see what's going on along the right side of the picture below?

It's not done. (Cue the sad trombone.) We still have four boxes in the garage, and we're going to have to cut those pieces to size (and undercut some door trim), and all we were able to get done last weekend was the dry fitting of the full pieces. We even had to deviate from the parquet pattern along the edge to temporarily fill in the biggest gaps so our brunch guests wouldn't fall off the edge. (But yes, we had brunch guests! And we ate out on the screened porch! And it was divine!)

Anyway, stay tuned and maybe you'll find that you like ipe, too.

15 November 2011

No Impact Man

I don't do a whole lot of "green" reading, but I just finished No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (whew, that was a mouthful) by Colin Beavan. No Impact Man is one of a bunch of books lately where the author undertakes to do something for a year -- in this case, to eliminate from his life all products and activities that have any carbon footprint or environmental impact. (Which got me thinking just how long a year is -- could I stand to do anything bookworthy for that long?)

When I began reading the book, I thought I knew what it meant to be a "guilty liberal" in the context of green living. I did not anticipate that Beavan would be the kind of guy who, in the four days before he began the project, would amass 90 gallons of garbage because he and his wife didn't recycle at all (plus there were all of the disposable diapers). But sure enough -- he started at zero, first ceasing to buy anything that came with any packaging so he wouldn't make any garbage. (It wasn't enough, apparently, simply to stop using anything that can't be recycled.) In the beginning he was satisfied to buy whatever he could put in his own containers from the bulk section of the grocery store, but later he decided to limit himself to food that came from within 250 miles of his home (New York City). As he added rules over the months, he stopped using all fossil-fuel-powered transportation, stopped buying anything new (with an exception for socks and underwear), and even turned off the electricity at his home (although he continued to work at a common space for writers that had fancy amenities like air conditioning and lights).

As someone who tries to be conscious of the environment but is also basically lazy, I do what is easiest to incorporate into my life. (Putting recyclables into a different bin from garbage takes minimal effort; researching and tracking down local foods is a lot of work, so which do you think I do?) Given that the author couldn't even be bothered to recycle before he started his project, I was struck by the ridiculousness of some of his efforts. Why couldn't he, for instance, ride a bus that was going from his house to his office anyway? I suppose the answer is that the book is more interesting that way. But the most interesting part of the book was probably the cold, hard data that Beavan peppered in among his crazy tales. I'm not very educated about how quickly the ice caps are melting, how many barrels of oil we use in a day/month/year, or just how much plastic is floating in the ocean, but the book included lots of information to underscore the importance of taking care of our world. (Did you know that a single round-trip cross-country plane trip spews as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a year of the average American's driving?) Although most readers of this book would be of the "preaching to the choir" variety, Beavan's data effectively illustrates the need for some kind of measures to cut back our use of natural resources.

By the way, the book itself has a cardboard cover, and the author included a note about his search for a no (or minimal) impact method of production of the book. But with so many online resources, as well as the Kindle and its friends, how "no impact" is it really to print up books at all? (I got my copy from the library.)

The verdict? No Impact Man is based on a silly, sometimes illogical premise, but it tells an interesting story and is full of good information, and the appendix is packed with enough other resources on the topics addressed in the book to almost make me forget how preachy the end of the book was. A good read. B+.

11 November 2011

Art is Everywhere

Art doesn't have to cost a lot or come from a fancy gallery or even start out as "art" at all. As evidence for this proposition (Exhibit A, if you will*), I offer these law firm ads I saw recently in a really boring legal magazine (pardon the glare -- the actual images are much more frameworthy):

In addition to showing that some lawyers might actually have a sense of humor, this is kind of a neat image. Although the name at the bottom could be cropped out, the text in the middle unfortunately can't, but even this cropped version would be cute in a frame:

Then there's this bold two-pager (which didn't all fit in my picture):


Or, linguist-style, with "ingenuity" in seven languages:

This one might be more appropriate on a men's room door, but I liked the bold image:

It could work in a frame on the wall at home...

...but probably would be best on the restroom door.

On a peppier note:

How cute would this be in a frame on the wall of a bright, sunny kitchen?

* That's a lawyer joke joke. The underlying lawyer joke is a cartoon in which a lawyer in court offers what he calls "Exhibit A," which is a big letter B. I don't think it's funny. Some lawyer friends think it's hilarious. They are obviously wrong.

09 November 2011

Beyond My Skill Set

Hopefully the hardest part of the rainwater cistern project is behind us...

...although it's likely that there are harder parts to come, as all we've done so far is submit our rebate application to the city. The application was brutal. It wasn't that they asked a lot of difficult questions or anything. No, it was the art test that killed me.

The application required a "site drawing" showing the house, the cistern, and major landscaping features on the lot, as well as a 3-dimensional "system drawing" showing the house and rainwater system components. The city helpfully put the following sample drawings on their website:

The site drawing wasn't too terribly hard. I just had to track down a copy of our site plan from construction (basically a survey), white-out the extraneous lines, and then draw in the required components. It won't be winning any awards, but it's not too bad:

But then there's the system drawing. It would have to include all of the rooflines that feed into the rainwater system (which cover two and a half sides of the house), plus the water meter (which will require a special backflow prevention device), and sufficient detail of all of the various rainwater harvesting components, so an aerial view like the sample would be best. But our roof is complicated with a capital C, and I just couldn't figure out how to draw it from an angle from which I've never seen it. After briefly contemplating renting a helicopter, I settled for tracing the shape of the house from a photograph taken from the back corner of the lot, fudging the garage at the far left (which wasn't visible at all in the photo), adding the cistern and other rainwater collection components, and making a mockery of scale and perspective.

This was actually the better of two system drawings I attempted. I have since shredded the other one. Hopefully our rebate application will be approved without the need for any redos, and we can move on to the much easier step two: ordering the cistern.

07 November 2011

I Heart Swimming

The pool at my gym was closed for maintenance this weekend (and the lake has finally crossed over into too-cold-to-go-without-a-wetsuit territory). But fortunately, I was able to get a swim workout in anyway. Or something like that.

Friday night was the finishers' party for the Texas Tri Series, a series of six triathlons ranging from a super-sprint in April to a half Ironman in October. While I didn't do all of the races, I volunteered for the ones I didn't race, so I still qualified as a "finisher."

High Five Events, which puts on the races, and Jack and Adam's bike/triathlon shop, which is closely affiliated with High Five, do an outstanding job with all of their events. I really can't say enough about how much they do to provide a great experience for athletes at every race, and the same is true of their parties. (They have a volunteer party after each event to thank the hundreds of volunteers who make the races possible, and they're always at great restaurants with lots of food and fun.) Friday's finishers' party was like triathlon prom, with people we usually only see in spandex and wicking fabrics actually wearing kind of dressy regular-people clothes.

Anyway, among other fun perks, the party featured a photographer and green screen with backdrops like a field of bluebonnets, the Texas Capitol, and...well, more triathlon-specific options. There were also some props, including a bicycle helmet and, um, this:

Okay, so I didn't technically get a swim in this weekend (hopefully I will today). But isn't pretend swim start practice just as valuable?

03 November 2011

Spring Has Sprung

Now that it isn't a thousand degrees out every day, our landscaping seems to think it's spring. Plants that were in hibernation all summer are finally flowering again.

We lost one of our eight rose bushes (bad adjustment to the drip irrigation system, I think), but the pink and red knockouts have started to flower, and three others are on the verge of flowers as well.

One of our oleanders is starting to bud (and the other has a lot of new greenery):

Of our four verbena plants, one of them has exploded with color (the others are kind of "meh"):

The skyflower that Steve picked out on his birthday bloomed pretty well all summer, but since the heat subsided, it has experienced a growth spurt:

Then there are the plumbagos. They have been growing and flowering all summer, and it's crazy to see how much they have filled in since we planted them:

Ditto for the yellow and white lantanas around the crape myrtle in the backyard:

Even a gaura that we thought was dead after the solar guys stepped on it (breaking the stem off at the ground) started growing back with more foliage than it had before:

No flowers yet, but if spring lasts into December, who knows?