29 April 2011

Level With Me

The weekend we had the bobcat, Steve also rented us a transit level. What's a transit level? It's the weird tripod device that you sometimes see surveyors or construction crews using along the road:



I had never understood how they work (how does just looking at stuff tell you how high it is?!), but it's actually pretty simple. They consist of three parts. The first is the tripod itself. Not too much to say about that.

The second is the level part, which sits on top of the tripod. It's actually like a level and binoculars in one.



You attach it to the tripod, adjust the legs to get it roughly level, and then use the three knobs at the base of the head to level it the rest of the way. The level has its own bubble level built in so you know it's perfectly level when the bubble is in the center of the circle:



Once the head is level, you look through the binocular part (er, monocular?). There's a grid on the view finder that establishes a level line in whichever direction you look. Another person holds the third part, a yardstick on steroids, at various points around the yard (I imagine there are stands for a person to work independently, but I had Steve for that).



Once you do that at several locations and note the height on the stick where the viewfinder's center line lines up, you can figure out which parts of the yard are higher or lower than other parts. In our case, we were trying to establish a gentle slope away from the house (about six inches of drop over ten feet), so if the height next to the house was, say, 4'8" and the height ten feet away was 4'11", we knew we needed to bring the slope down some more. (The trickiest thing about the transit level is that the numbers are the opposite of what you would think, logically, they should be. A "higher" reading on the stick means that the ground level is lower in that spot -- because that means the stick is sitting lower on the ground.)

So that's the tale of our weekend with the transit level. It worked out really well for the backyard. Unfortunately, because of the problems with the bobcat battery, we kind of ran out of time to use it much in the front yard (although we ended up with a much easier -- for us -- solution for grading the front yard). Nonetheless, Steve liked it so much that he ordered the head part from Amazon so we can use it (with a tripod we already have and some kind of modified yardstick) for future projects. Which I guess means that there will be future projects....

28 April 2011

One Hundred Percent

That's how many of our exterior plants are in bloom. Every single one! Okay, so there are only three (all remaining from the old house), but that's still huge in my book.

There are the two pomegranate bushes that I've mentioned before:







And our althea (a kind of hibiscus), which went from tiny buds to a handful of lavender flowers overnight:







It's amazing that these three plants have survived for more than two years without irrigation (although we did take milk jugs of water over to the althea during the hottest part of summer the first year). We're having a sprinkler system installed, but I hope we won't have to use it much after everything gets established.

27 April 2011

Fountain of...Indecision

At Steve's insistence, our landscaping plan includes a water feature. Our landscape designer did a great job incorporating a modest vessel fountain as the focal point of a huge planting bed in the backyard, where it will be visible from the yard, the screened porch, the (eventual) patio, and the master bedroom. The fountain hasn't been a high priority item, but we recently passed by a place that sells such things, so we decided to stop in and check out their selection.

Let's get this out of the way up front: if Steve had his way, he'd put in something like this:



It would be amazing, but it would take us, like, a year and a half to build. So that will not be happening. (At least, not in this decade.) What we are going for is a simple vessel fountain, like this:



But not exactly that one. We found a few different vessels that spoke to us. I tried to take pretty close-up pictures of each one, as well as pictures of Steve standing next to them for scale. A lot of the styles we liked happened to be fairly small:



And here it is in action (the water darkens it somewhat, making it perhaps a better match to the stone on our house):



But is it too matchy?

Here Steve is standing next to a slightly different version of the smaller one above:




Here is a red one that is set up, but it also comes in green:



See the plastic grate, mesh, and river stones at the base? That's how the "disappearing" aspect of it works. There's a plastic box (about a foot deep) that gets recessed into the ground. The pump sits in that box. When the water spills over the sides of the fountain, it goes through the rocks, mesh, and grate and into the box, where it gets pumped back up all over again.

Here's the green version:



I really like it, but maybe the green squariness is too much like the house? (Don't worry, there's plenty more green to see below.)

We liked the color (of course) and pattern of this one, and the height is better for visibility over the low bushes that will be surrounding it:





But it seemed too wide. So, without any single find that was just right, we headed toward the exit, planning to think on our options for a while. And that's when we saw this (again):



It wasn't the fountain that caught our eye. Or this one, either, although it excited us just as much:



Neither of these fountains are right for our yard, but we love how they're built up off the ground. The box that catches the water isn't recessed but instead is set on the ground, so the fountain itself sits about a foot higher. Stone and gravel is used to build up the sides of the box and make it look natural. (And if there's one thing we have -- or, rather, two -- it's spare stones and gravel.)

So that opened up the possibility of smaller vessels. We were really drawn to the squiggly pattern on this one:



But it's probably still too small. This one has a neat, subtle pattern that gives it an Asian feel (sorry, forgot the close-up):



There's no telling what fountain we might end up with (or even when), but it was fun to start the process of choosing just the right one for us. (We plan to take these pictures out to the yard, try to imagine the planting bed full of color and volume, and decide which one is the best fit.) Although the fountain was 100% Steve's idea, I'm realizing it will be a pretty nifty feature.

26 April 2011

Back to the Bobcat

Our bobcat rental was quite the adventure. The neighbors were pretty impressed with our heavy machinery (although I don't anticipate any "keeping up with the Joneses" on this front). Steve was pretty much a natural:



We rented it for one day, but since that day was a Saturday and the shop is closed on Sundays, we had it from Saturday morning until Monday morning. We were limited to roughly eight hours of use, though. Construction equipment apparently uses an odometer-like clock to track usage by hours. (Who knew?) That's the clock in the middle of the control panel (reading "1174.3"):



So we got right to work, starting with some grading in the backyard:



There isn't much slope back there, and the brick ledge is set low on the house, so we didn't have much leeway to work with. Getting a gentle slope away from the house was important.



It was great to be able to use it for a little while, then turn it off and do some raking or other manual tasks, and then turn it back on for the heavy work, instead of cramming all of our use into a single day. Until after lunch on Saturday, when it wouldn't start. I think we wasted an hour trying to get it started, googling, and finally jumping it with the battery from Steve's car. (The bobcat was in the backyard at that point, so we had to remove the battery and lug it back there.)

Getting the bobcat to the backyard was quite a feat in itself. Since we had to haul roughly a third of our 48 yards of soil and compost back there (plus seven yards of gravel and half a ton of river rock, not to mention the random stones and bricks from our temporary driveway), we made lots and lots of trips. Using our trusty garden cart, we managed to be pretty efficient. Steve would use the bobcat to fill up the cart...



...which I would pull around the east side of the house while he grabbed a huge scoop and headed around the west side:



I would unload the cart...



...just in time to meet Steve as he approached the back corner of the house to guide him through the narrow space between the corner and our neighbor's fence. (He had told us not to worry about hitting his old fence, but we obviously preferred not to.)



(The bobcat was pretty hard on our neighbor's grass. When we asked him for permission to drive over it, we offered to replace whatever we destroyed, but he told us he preferred to let it grow back over time (which shouldn't take long) instead of having to water new sod in our current drought.)

Anyway, passing between the house and the fence was tiiiight:



We put some plywood up against the house to protect it. There was only 6" of clearance around the bobcat (as in, three inches on each side if we lined it up perfectly). Steve had researched bobcats and found that the S130 model was the narrowest, so that's what he reserved. (When they made the delivery, they originally brought the S150, which has the same size bucket but wider tires, and Steve immediately knew that wasn't going to fit, so we sent it back in favor of the S130.) Good thing, too, as we rarely lined it up perfectly:



Using the bobcat in conjunction with the garden cart, I think we hauled about half a yard per trip, so we probably made about 40 trips back and forth between Saturday and Sunday (plus lots of raking). We had watched some YouTube how-to videos in preparation for the big event, and in one of them, a serious-sounding narrator says that anyone can drive a bobcat, but not anyone can be an operator. Steve didn't achieve operator status, but he definitely improved his skills over the course of the weekend. By the end, he was using the bucket to smooth the piles that we had distributed, although I still did plenty of raking.

Driving a bobcat is HARD! I never tried it, suspecting that its controls were too complicated for my sometimes-absentminded self. There is a lever (like a car's brake lever) that controls speed, and two joysticks (one for each set of wheels). It's called a skidsteer, which means that the left and right wheels go forward and backward independently of each other, and turns are achieved by moving the joysticks to and fro in various combinations. Then, as if that's not enough to master, there are two foot levers that control the bucket (one to lift and lower, the other to scoop and dump). Steve did great at driving it and at maneuvering the bucket...just not at the same time. (A true operator would be able, for instance, to drive backward and lower the bucket at the same time.)

The whole endeavor was one of those "it has to get worse before it gets better" situations:



By the end of day 1, things were looking...well, not much better:



Bringing in the gravel and river rock when we did wasn't quite the ideal order of events (better to wait until the irrigation went in before spreading gravel), but since we had the bobcat (and since we still had an old driveway that could take a beating), it worked out well for us. We laid landscaping fabric over some of the area to be covered with gravel:



And scooped and dumped:



Scooping up each boulder was trickier than we anticipated. Once we got it in the bucket, though, it was smooth sailing:



We dropped the backyard boulder in roughly its final destination at the edge of one of the planting beds, with plans to adjust its position once the edging and grass are in:



And by the end of the weekend, we had all of the soil and compost more or less spread and smoothed out...and the gravel, river rock, and leftover stone/bricks moved to the back corner.

The rental place was going to charge about $7/gallon for gas, so we decided to fill it up ourselves Monday morning (leading to the diesel spill on my car seat -- the smell is 100% gone, by the way). And because of the trouble with the battery (it wouldn't start on its own at all after lunch on Saturday), they refunded about half of our rental charge, making the total cost about $220 for rental, delivery, damage waiver (just in case Steve didn't even make it to "driver" status), and gas. Which is a fraction of the $2500 that our yard guy was going to charge to spread just the soil and compost (with a shovel and wheelbarrow, presumably). And how cool is it to have your own bobcat for the weekend?

25 April 2011

I Came, I Sod

This weekend we did some reconnaissance. Grass reconnaissance.

It's time to place our sod order. We have been planning for zoysia grass for its drought tolerance, but there are several varieties, and we wanted to see (and feel) the two that made our short list. We called the two places we have in mind to order from, but neither of them keeps stock on hand that we could look at. One of them, though, has palisades zoysia planted out front, so we took a drive up to see it.

We employed a very sophisticated testing procedure: 1. Remove shoes. 2. Step, step, step.



Unlike our other contender, zeon zoysia, palisades has wide blades:



It looks a bit like St. Augustine grass, but since it uses a whole lot less water, it feels drier (and maybe a little pricklier) and isn't quite as lush as St. Augustine. All in all, though, we liked it.

There was another kind of grass on the premises, too. We're not sure if it was another variety of zoysia or something else, but it was definitely a fine-blade grass, so we took a picture for comparison purposes:



That's pretty much what zeon zoysia looks like -- fine blades packed densely. Zeon has gotten a lot of fanfare for drought-tolerance, disease-resistance, low maintenance, and other good qualities, but I was really drawn to the palisades (which shares many of the same attributes), so I think that's going to be our choice.

24 April 2011

Easter Bunny Needs a Home!

This little guy hopped into our lives yesterday.



(Girl, actually (I think), and she didn't technically hop -- she was driven.)

Last week a former co-worker found a tiny bunny in her yard. Long story short (she has dogs, etc.), today we became her guardians until we can find her a permanent home. She doesn't have a name, so we've been calling her Little Bun Bun.

She's very sweet and very mellow. She's obviously been handled a lot and is very comfortable with people. I think she'd do great with kids (as long as they are old enough to be gentle).



She is teeny tiny. (My fingers can almost reach all the way around her midsection.) She's probably still a baby.

She has such a sweet face:




And lovely coloring -- mostly tan with some light grey accents:



She's a good eater. Here she is going town on some Italian parsley:



And then taking a break to ponder the meaning of life:



Although she probably isn't more than a few months old, she's already litter box trained, too.

I took lots of pictures, trying to get a few good ones to post. Most of them turned out like this:




What can I say? She's a bunny on the move.

Anyway, if you're in the Austin area and are interested in a bunny, let me know. (Obligatory bunny ownership disclaimer: Bunnies aren't to be adopted casually. They live 8-10 years and have similar veterinary needs (read: costs) as dogs and cats. They need love and attention and should only be adopted if you're willing to make a long-term commitment to a wonderful little friend.)

Whether your day involves real bunnies or the chocolate kind, Little Bun Bun and I wish you a very happy Easter!

23 April 2011

A Different Kind of "Green" Post

This isn't about energy-efficiency or water conservation or anything. It's about my Bissell Little Green Machine.



We've probably had it for ten years (long enough that the white plastic has yellowed), and it's been a lifesaver more than once. I recall using it to clean up baby bunny pee when this little handful of adorable wet the carpet:



We haven't had much use for it since we moved out of the condo (which was the last time we had carpet), but it was a lifesaver this week when I spilled diesel gasoline on my cloth car seat in the process of trying to fill up the bobcat before it was picked up (which was just before the police arrived (for unrelated reasons) -- it was a very chaotic morning...).

Anyway, back to the Green Machine. It came with a little container of cleaning solution (you can buy refills), but we've always just used it with water. I don't even know where that little container is anymore, so when I realized we probably needed something stronger to get the gas out of the upholstery, I just rubbed in some of our Dr. Bronner's liquid hand soap then applied water and sucked it out with the Green Machine. I don't know what we would have done without it, but I know my car would still be smelling like gasoline. For $80-$100 on Amazon (depending on the model), I'd definitely buy another if this one ever stopped working. The one time a year or so that we use it, it's worth its weight in gold.

There was one problem, though. It did such a good job of cleaning the edge of the seat where the gas spilled that it's now impossible to miss the layer of grime covering the rest of the seat (I guess that's to be expected over six years):



Yuck. Another project for another day.

To finish this post on a less gross note, and in honor of Easter, some gratuitous baby bunny pictures: