30 April 2012

Dipping My Toe in Landscape Design

A few weeks ago, my friend Michelle asked me if I would be interested in helping her redo her front yard. She explained that her lawn was a mess, there was a military-industrial shrubbery complex taking over one corner of the yard (we call it the "horrible bush" -- Michelle's words), and she wasn't too excited about most of the other plants, either. When she said she wanted to bring more color to her yard, I knew I was going to like working with Michelle.

I have no formal training in landscape design (or informal training, either, really), but our own landscaping process last year was a real eye-opener for me. Since the beginning of construction, I had been trying to put together a plan for our own yard, but I couldn't make anything work. We ended up hiring a professional designer, and the final design incorporated everything I had struggled to include -- plus a lot of interesting lines and shapes. It was like a light bulb went off. I certainly won't claim that I now know as much as our landscape designer -- clearly, I don't -- but seeing how our design was put together definitely opened my mind to how exterior space can be used in visually interesting ways. So I jumped at the opportunity to help Michelle by putting together a landscaping plan.

I've only been to her house once, so before I headed up to there get a closer look at the situation, she sent me the following pictures of the front yard and its various "problem areas."

There's a nice live oak tree in front of the house, but that's about all Michelle wants to keep.

The cute front porch is just begging for some colorful plants to draw the eye up from the street. (The three plants right in front of the porch are hibiscus, which will stay.)

I know we can do better than this green tunnel up to the front door.

Grass has never grown very well in this part of the yard.

And then there's the horrible bush (which is disguising an electrical box that I swear is no more than two feet tall by eight inches wide and deep).

Between the planting bed in front of the porch, the patch along the driveway where grass has never grown very well, and the horrible bush, one big bed encompassing all of these areas seemed like the solution. A few days after she sent the pictures, I was going to be seeing Michelle at our book group, so I quickly drew this sketch to get some initial feedback from her:

She liked the general concept, but with a lot of kids in the neighborhood, the agaves made her nervous. Not wanting to be responsible for any toddler tears, I agreed that we should rework that part of the plan.

A few days later I headed up to Michelle's house to check things out for myself and flesh out her needs and wants. With the agave phase behind us, we seemed to have a shared vision for the yard, so we just talked through some practical concerns (like needing to add a few stepping stones because Michelle and her family routinely walk straight from the porch to the sidewalk) and then sat down with a copy of the city's Grow Green book to choose plants. Michelle said she liked pink, white, and purple, so we picked out purple and white lantana, lavender, gaura, heartleaf skullcap, a crape myrtle, and a few other plants that would work well (most of which I have in my own yard). To screen the electrical box, I suggested three or four pink knockout roses, which we would repeat on the other side of the yard for balance. We also decided to move the rosemary that's currently between the garage and the walkway to the far side of the house (under and next to the crape myrtle). And Michelle's own research led her to Habiturf, an awesome new blend of the native and drought-tolerant grasses, for the new lawn.

And that brings us to the final plan that is now pending approval by Michelle's homeowner's association:

Michelle and her husband are itching to get started on the work (rumor has it they may have started removing some of the bushes before getting approval from the HOA) -- and I'm itching to share the results once the new landscape is in place.

26 April 2012

Poison Ivy

Do you know what this is?

Okay, so the title of this post probably gave it away. But would you be able to identify it as such out in the wild?

Before the cistern was delivered earlier this week, I wanted to clean up the corner of the lot where it was going to go. Even after building the granite base, that area was overgrown with weeds and cluttered with leftover house stones, and I thought it would be more pleasant to tidy it up without feeling cramped between a metal silo and the fence.

As I set out to tackle that task, two things were in the back of my mind. First, a landscape designer we talked with shortly after moving in had casually mentioned that it looked like there was poison ivy back there, although she didn't seem very confident, so I wasn't too worried. Second, the guide on our recent nature walk at Blanco State Park told us how to identify poison ivy, noting that its asymmetrical leaves look like they have a "thumb." Sure enough, the plants along our fence matched her description (and the examples she had pointed out along the trail):

I knew I was dealing with the real thing, so I put on some disposable gloves and got to clearing it out.

And that's where things started to go very, very badly.

Hindsight being 20/20, I obviously should have been wearing long sleeves, but I really, really thought I could just be careful and keep it from touching my arms. And now I am very, very itchy. (Although at least half of it is just regular bug bites, just like last year. When will I learn?)

I'm writing this in hopes that one person can learn from my experience. (Maybe that person will even be me.) Poison ivy is no joke.

Oh, and although I didn't get all of the poison ivy and leftover stone cleared out (I'm about halfway through that thankless task), I did clean up the area closest to the cistern and even repositioned one of our compost tumblers from its previous spot wedged right next to the cistern.

When I recovery from my wounds and venture back out to the Forbidden Corner, I will be wearing pants, long sleeves, gloves, and bug spray. And I'll plan for a thorough scrub-down in the mudroom as soon as I finish. And I'll hope like heck that it doesn't come back.

Update: Because the old saying, "leaves of three, let it be" isn't very helpful in identifying poison ivy (since a lot of plants have leaves of three), my friend Jennifer suggested this handy mnemonic: "Leaves of thumb, don't be dumb." Thanks, Jen!

25 April 2012

Creeping Toward Water Independence

Water semi-independence, really, since we're only using the rainwater system for irrigation, and it won't even cover all of that. But that's another discussion for another time.

When last we talked rainwater collection, I had finished excavating the base area (to deal with the slope of the lot) and was ready to start laying out the stone edging.

Using a very sophisticated system involving a measuring tape and leftover flags from our irrigation system installation, I laid out a circle large enough to accommodate the cistern's 7' diameter. My original plan was to use 4" tall stones left over from construction, but Steve had to bring physics into it, pointing out that a stone just sitting on the ground (on the side of the circle that wasn't excavated because the ground was already lower) would be pushed out by the weight of the cistern (which, when full, will weight more than ten tons). So I ended up using 8" stones on that side, digging the bottom half into the ground so that the top of the circle would be level all the way around.

(I have to wear pants because of the bugs and the hat because of the sun.  Don't be jealous.)

Then, to keep the base material from leaking out between gaps in the stone, I put down two layers of landscaping fabric (and a few extra stones to hold the fabric in place temporarily):

And then it was time to fill in the stone ring with decomposed granite. My friend Abby graciously agreed to take me to the stone/soil/gravel yard in her truck (it was win-win, as Abby was thrilled to discover Whittlesey, our go-to source for bulk landscaping supplies). With the truck, I was able to bring home a cubic yard of granite for under $40 -- which would have cost about $150 in individual bags at Lowe's. Plus, hauling those little bags into my trunk isn't nearly as cool as this:

And Abby was also nice enough to help me unload the granite.

That required a lot of digging, but not as much as it could have because I had planned ahead and brought a bunch of plant pots and buckets, which I laid out in the truck bed before the granite was dumped in so that they would be filled for us.  That way, we could just pick them up and put them right into the garden cart that we used to haul everything to the backyard. (Plus, laying a heavy-duty tarp in the truck bed made it really easy to get the last bits out.)

As we hauled the granite to the backyard and dumped it into the circle (and took out the large stones that were holding the landscaping fabric in place), we periodically tamped it down to ensure a solid base.

I also poured some water on it later (from our rainbarrels) to further compact it.  Not to to my own horn, but it's a pretty awesome cistern base.

And that brings us to this:

Which was a process in itself because of the narrow space between houses and especially between our house and the fence, but we got 'er done. (And by "we," I mean "Steve, our neighbor Jack -- huge thanks to Jack -- and Bruce from Texas Metal Cisterns.")

Although getting the cistern in place feels like the end of a long process, it's really just the beginning, as I still need to do all of the plumbing (much of which will be underground), trenching (for the underground lines), electrical (for the pump), and about a thousand other things before we will be ready to start harvesting. In the meantime, let's admire the cistern from all of the interior vantage points. The guest room:

The kitchen:

And the master bedroom (through the screened porch):

The cistern is so much more modern and industrial than I thought we would be drawn to, but we love how it looks with the metal roof -- not to mention knowing how great it's going to feel to bring our water use in line with the greenness of the rest of the Green House.

22 April 2012

Happy Earth Day to You, Happy Earth Day to You, Happy Earth Day, Dear Reader...!

Did you know that Earth Day has been around since 1970? Maybe it's just because I've had more time to enjoy it (including the last several days of Earth Week activities around Austin and beyond), but it seems like Earth Day has really taken hold as more of a mainstream event this year.

I obviously think every day is a good day to do our part for the environment, so I'd like to take this occasion to recap the Green House's progress toward being just a little kinder to the world. (Check out last year's tips for greening up your home here.) With most of the basics covered, we're finding ourselves having to dig a little deeper for new ways to reduce our environmental footprint...and some of the things we've done are decidedly not basic. But here they are:

Reusable sandwich/snack bags. For Christmas, we got these nifty reusable bags:

There are a lot of different brands of similar bags, but these are the only we've seen that are dishwasher-able. (Most others are designed to go in the laundry. I like that ours don't need to travel around the house to get clean.)

Solar panels. We decided to install a 6-kilowatt system last summer, they were put into operation in October, and now they're making roughly a 100% difference in our electric bills.

The bill we received yesterday had a credit of $2.31, compared with a charge of about $60 for the same time period last year. But knowing that we'll be helping Texas's overburdened grid this summer is perhaps an even better reward.

Homegrown veggies and herbs. We're still a long way from having our vegetable garden built and producing fresh veggies, but we are growing a handful of edibles in the backyard.

In addition to the rosemary and lavender that we planted last year, we have three new basil plants (two of which I discovered growing on their own the other day, presumably after reseeding from last year's plant), as well as some Italian parsley and broccoli for the bunnies. Once the Italian parsley plant gets big enough to harvest, it will actually save us gas, as running out of Italian parsley is the most common reason we end up making a separate trip to the grocery store.

Recycling electronics. The property manager at Steve's office coordinated electronics recycling drop-off last week (in honor of Earth Week), and we took full advantage.

I'll admit that we've been electronics (and cable) hoarders over the last few years, but it's only because we haven't known what to do with obsolete equipment. We didn't need this stuff but didn't want to just throw it away, either...so an opportunity to recycle it (through a company called Round 2) was just what we needed to free up a bunch of space in our office.

Walking. We've never quite gotten the hang of using our bikes for errands around town, but we love walking to nearby businesses for dinner, shopping, and especially to pick up/drop off Redbox movies. (And when we have to drive anywhere, we're black belt trip-combiners.)

Rainwater collection. After landscaping (most of) our yard last year, we decided we needed to offset our water use with a bigger rainwater collection system than just our two little rainbarrels. So far only the base is in...

...but we expect the cistern to be delivered next week, and once the system is complete (and we get some good rain), our landscape is going to love being fed with pure, untreated rainwater.

So there you have it. I look forward to finishing the rainwater system (more than you know...) and then finding the next green endeavor to embrace.

Hope you're having a great Earth Day! I'm off to enjoy Earth!

20 April 2012

This Is What It's All About

Recently we ventured away from the Green House to enjoy some good living out at Blanco State Park with friends.  We had never been out there, so it was surprising to discover that the small park abuts the tiny town.  I suppose if we were looking for a hardcore nature experience, Blanco State Park might have been disappointing, but since we just wanted to relax in nature, it was perfect.

The weather was great, and relaxation was plentiful.

Our friends who coordinated the trip, Fred and MJ, opted for an open-air cabin over a regular campsite, but there was plenty of space for everyone else's tents (we had a big crowd -- a total of about 15 people came out at some point over the weekend).

Here's our little home-away-from-home:

The weather was so nice that we didn't need to get into our sleeping bags...but we weren't too warm, either.

The view from our tent wasn't bad, either:

But the best part of the river, which ran right through the middle of the park, was the swimming pool that was built into the dam back in the 1930s (as a New Deal project):

Unfortunately, I wasn't expecting the park to have so many amenities, so I was unprepared for swimming.  But the kids in our group -- and lots of other families -- enjoyed it.

We did go on a guided nature walk, where a very knowledgeable volunteer showed us some of the highlights of the park and shared nuggets from its history.  But my favorite part was seeing all of the wildflowers:

Our new little friend Cerci enjoyed the nature walk, too.

And also seemed to be a fan of the flowers:

MJ had expertly coordinated the meal plan (our contributions were corn on the cob, s'mores ingredients, and pancake mix), but we were on our own for lunch.  We were the slackers who hadn't brought anything.  Our plan was to cheat by driving into town for lunch, but since town was so close (less than half a mile to the town square), a bunch of us ended up "hiking" back across the river for lunch.

We ate at the Redbud Cafe, which seemed to be a local favorite.  Everyone enjoyed their lunch (mostly sandwiches), and I especially enjoyed the lavender lemonade.  I'm sure the live music would have been fun, too.

Of course, what small Texas town doesn't have one of these cool old courthouses?

Oh, and we found some unique local flavor, too:

But mostly there was just a lot of hanging out, enjoying nature and the company of friends (some of whom went for a bike ride, hence the cycling attire):

We were happy to keep it simple -- reading, and napping, and chatting, and just enjoying our time at Blanco State Park.

18 April 2012

Environmental Footprint Calculator

With Earth Day right around the corner, Steve sent me a link to this environmental footprint calculator, so I gave it a try.

It asks questions about how much meat you eat, where your food comes from (local food has a smaller carbon footprint), what kind of home you live in how much electricity you use, and how much you drive, and then it tells you about your environmental footprint. And because tons of carbon dioxide are fairly abstract, they put it in terms of how much land is needed to support your lifestyle and how many earths would be needed if everyone lived just like you do.

As I went through the quiz, a picture filled to reflect my answers. I try to eat lots of fresh (unprocessed) foods, so there's a big fruit/vegetable stand. When I selected "green house," a house with solar panels landed in the field (other options included "single-family home without running water").

I thought I'd get pretty good results, but the calculator still said we would need 4.4 earths for everyone on the planet to live like I do. (Was it the running water?) It also said that it takes 19.7 acres of the world to support my lifestyle.

Eek. I guess I'm not as green as I thought.

So what did I do? Well, first I went back through the program again, making much less green selections (you know, to make myself feel better about my wasteful ways).

My very un-green alter ego drives a SUV and eats A LOT of meat and processed food (luckily she lives so close to the meat-and-processed-food shop), and she generates a lot more garbage. Oh, and she flies a lot more than I do (hence the TWO planes in the sky). Consequently, her lifestyle takes 60.5 acres to support her lifestyle, and it would take 13.6 earths for everyone to be able to live like she does.

Interestingly, a huge difference between the two scenarios is that mobility is a very small part of my actual life, whereas it constitutes half of the second ecological footprint (between driving/ flying more and requiring more transportation to get food and products).

The main area I saw for improvement of my actual results -- as evidenced by my not-so-green answer to the question -- was with regard to buying household goods. (All of the questions are in terms of how much you do/buy/eat relative to other people, and although I think we're pretty frugal, I certainly can't say we never buy household items.) But as long as we're reusing/refurbishing old or used things, I think they should count for extra credit, don't you think?