Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving interlude

One of a series of stones with lines from a poem by John Noelke, in a public garden in San Angelo, Texas.

The poem, "More Than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Sculpture," was written to go with his sculpture, "The Angelas," and was inspired by Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

This particular line resonated with me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I have gone over to the dark side

My neighbors' trees, lovely, and rich with autumn leaves:

 And the trees are not only rich, they are generous, too, for each autumn they like to donate their leaves to my garden:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"What makes the water holy..."

"...she says, is that it's the closest thing to rain."

--Josh Ritter,"Wings"

I went to lunch with my old college roommate yesterday and came home with rocks. After our chiles rellenos, I took Barbara, who is also a former geologist, to my favorite local stone yard and she was as enamored with the place as I always am. I've been wanting to make a new watering hole for the birds in the front garden, so we wandered around until we found the ideal couple of chunks to use as a backdrop. We lugged them home in Walu's Scion and unloaded them in the new arroyo/planting bed next to the wine patio, where I will be able to sit and watch the birds come in to drink. This morning I grabbed a copper basin I had lying around the yard and made a small altar for water under the chaste tree.

As I worked, I was reminded of this favorite line from Josh Ritter's song. As a child of deserts and prairies, it perfectly describes how I feel about the gift that is a humble pool of water.

Friday, November 20, 2009

HGTV: Always Good for a Laff

You know what I mean? Why on earth would they think I'd want Niagara Falls in my back yard? Lookit, I know they think that all Americans believe that bigger is better, but actually, there are quite a few of us who don't buy into that, and our idea of a water feature does not include something that looks like it belongs in an amusement park.

Niagara Falls, 1850's, Anonymous; Image in the Public Domain

And yet, our friends at HgTV insist on creating programming that panders to the Cult of Big. You know what I mean. In fact, it is my understanding that there is a new spring line up of shows that will focus solely on this perceived trend. Here are a few of the proposed titles:

"My Really Really Big (Bigger than Yours) House Renovation"

"The 'It's All About the Money' Dream House"

"In Which We Dig Up an Acre of of Perfectly Good Land and Replace it with an 'Eco-Friendly' Flagstone Landscape and Faux Waterfall, Compleat with Outdoor Television and Man Cave, Because Lord Knows, We Watch So Much Television, We Even Need to Watch It When We are Outside"

And then finally, with a patronizing nod to those of us who are on a budget:

"How to Build Inexpensive Things for Your Garden That Will Fall down or Look Like Crap in a Year"

 But I digress. This is really a post about water features, and more specifically, how to build them to look natural. And in honor of the Cult of Big, I'm going to let you in on a big secret:

Don't build them big.

Think about it. How many times have you been walking through the countryside when you suddenly come across a towering pile of same-sized boulders, squeezed like a chunky sausage into a narrow ravine, down which flows a tumble of water? I'm just going to guess, but I'll bet the answer is almost never. This is because,

A) Rocks don't pile up like that naturally
B) Most of us don't have full-sized mountains in our backyards. Some of us might, I'll grant you, but most of us don't.

Instead, we are much more likely to stumble across something that looks like this:

This most excellent water feature can be found at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. Diminutive and unassuming, it could be a small seep or spring that we might come upon in our perambulations of a quiet evening.

But besides being pocket-sized, there are other things that make it look natural, such as rocks in a variety of dimensions, with none so big we would need a skid steer to move them (okay, maybe one or two needed a skid steer). They are also in a variety of shapes, though most of them are more flattish than roundish.* Some stones are partially buried, while other stick up just a bit.  Plants grow like weeds between them (plants do that in nature, you know), and there are many different kinds of plant textures and shapes as well. Finally, as it is wont to do over time, dirt (not soil, not turf--plain old dirt) has filled in the voids. In short, there is diversity in size, shape, and placement of the rocks around the water, and it is not a towering pile.

Why can't HgTV show us how to do that? Maybe it's because it takes more careful thought than money.

Finally, here's another reason that smaller is better for water features: less surface area equals less evaporation. If we must have some sort of garden structure as a monument to water, then we should truly honor it by not being wasteful.

*Here's a tip: It is easier to make a flattish rock look as if it was deposited naturally than a roundish rock. I'll explain why in a future post, when I cover stream systems. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's wrong with this picture?

Can't see it? How about now:

There is nothing in nature that would deposit rocks in this hodgepodge, many-lone-rocks-sitting-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere pattern except a glacier. In fact, this type of deposition "pattern" is so erratic that geologists call the rocks left behind by glaciers...well, erratics. The problem is, there has never been a glacier in LBB. Not even back before LBB was LBB.

Every time I stop at this intersection, I have to avert my eyes. Clearly, someone thought, "We'll add boulders to the landscape! A bunch of boulders! Boulders make things look great!"

Well, yes, I have to agree that boulders look great in a landscape, but they should look like something that might actually occur in nature. Or, failing that, they should at least offer a reference to it.

I could see how the designer could have made this mistake, though, since taken in segments, as discrete tableaus, it doesn't look too bad:

Even this scene has a certain poignancy, as if the erratics were deposited there in order to suggest to the viewer that the gas prices sign is really a tree:

It is when they are dribbled out in a line along the planting strip that the design breaks down. Even if paying homage to the natural is not a designer's intention, there should at least be places in the composition for the eye to come to rest. But stringing individual boulders out like this give one the jumpy eye.

I'm afraid I couldn't get a shot to give you the full effect, since the best angle for that is in the middle of the intersection, and this was late in the day and evening rush hour traffic was at its peak. But this view might give you some idea of the overall look:

I don't mean to be unkind with my criticism here, but as a former geologist, I have to confess that it pains me to see rocks abused in landscapes. And yet, I can understand how it happens. People like rocks. I know this for a fact because I see them spending the equivalent of the national debt on HGTV hiring some guy with a truck and a plan to build "natural" water features/retaining walls/dry stream beds with them.

But, oy, those water features/retaining walls/dry stream beds don't always look so good. And I can understand how this happens, too. The landscapers goes down to the stone yard and orders up a truckload or two of big boulders or gravel, thinking that the mere addition of them to the landscape--without a real understanding of the environment they are trying to create--would enhance the scene. But we wouldn't assume that about plants, would we?

So lookit, as a public service to those HGTV guys, I've decided to start an informal series on designing with rocks and call it something clever like...oh, let's about, "Hardscaping should not be hard."

I don't really have a detailed plan; I just thought maybe I'd show some design hits and misses from time to time, maybe talk about how rocks behave in nature, maybe talk about other kinds of hardscaping, maybe muse a little about the meaning of it all--I dunno. My plan is kind of...erratic at this point.

But the rocks in my landscape are not.

Editorial note: The original photos were replaced with ones taken earlier in the day for better light.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The "Show Yer Compost Bin" Challenge

One of the things I like about the blogosphere are the occasional calls for a community-wide response to a posting challenge. Dee at Red Dirt Ramblings and Carol at May Dreams Gardens are among the best at this, and together they've come up with another one: Show us your compost bins.

Now, while I always enjoy reading all the terrific postings in response to the calls, I've seldom participated, not because I'm anti-social (though a case could probably be made for that), but because I don't often have anything all that interesting to offer.  For example, the most famous of these challenges, Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, which was Carol's brilliant idea and occurs on the 15th of each month, always mysteriously falls right before or right after anything is actually blooming in my tiny, nearly flowerless garden. I swear, it's the truth. I mean, it's not that I don't like flowers; they just aren't the main emphasis in my xeric garden. Interesting foliage, yes. Rock, yes. Landscape design, yes. Veggies, yes.

Any flowers that actually appear are almost a side effect. Shocking, I know. Please don't hate me.

But with compost bins, we're talking garden structure, my friends, and if there's anything I can talk about ad infinitum, it's building stuff. Plus, this concerns issues of sustainability and self-sufficiency, both of which are also subjects near and dear to me. So Dee and Carol, here we go:

The two bins, awaiting instruction from the gardener.

A little shot showing part of the construction.

My homemade compost aerator. This is simply a ground auger, available at most hardware stores for a minimal amount of money. I've stuck a wooden handle to it to make it easy to turn, but all you really need is a stick to slip through the loop on top and you're in business. Here is an older post about it. All that said, you don't have to aerate compost bins in order to get compost. If you throw a bunch of leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste, dryer lint--heck, just about anything that is organic--in a tall mound, compost will eventually happen, given enough time. The only thing you shouldn't throw in there is meat, cheese (or other dairy products), and pet waste. Aerating may speed up the process (as will keeping the matter a little damp and adding a bit of garden soil to introduce the decomposer microbes to the mix), but it's really just something gardeners do because they like poking sticks into big steaming piles of rot.

A shot of how the front of the bins work. Each of those boards has a largish hole drilled on either end. These holes slip over lag bolts screwed into the posts. The head of the lag bolt sits proud about one inch, and the holes fall behind the head, which holds the boards in place. Click on the photo for a close-up view. The design is loosely based on plans I read in some book somewhere, many, many years ago. Sorry, can't remember where--just want to acknowledge that someone else thought up the clever lag bolt thing first.

The wood is cedar (oh, and as an aside, this is definitely one place I wouldn't use pressure treated materials). I've had these going on a decade now, and given the excellent condition they're in, I'd say they're probably good for another score of years before they disintegrate completely. So I'd vote for cedar in the next election, too. And yes, I plan still to be gardening and building stuff then.

In the vignette above, I am preparing to dump two bags of horse manure into the pile. Again, manure is not necessary for composting, but it's kind of nifty to see what happens when you do add it, which is shown in the next photo:

Yes, that is steam, rising from the decomposing pile. Really, really cool. Or, um, hot.
Excuse me for just a minute, I need to go find a stick to poke in that.

This is the compost sieve I use--an old metal garden gate with some hardware wire stretched across it. As it happens, it fits perfectly over my wheelbarrow.

And the finished product.

It's as easy as pie--you don't even need fancy bins like mine, since a big ole' pile of leaves in a corner of the garden, left for a few months, will take care of the action all by itself. If you want to mix in kitchen scraps, then you might want more of a container. Even better would be to build a worm-bin, which is on my own next-to-do project list.

Truthfully, I just like building things. And poking sticks in things.

Anyway, if you aren't already composting, there's no good reason not to start. So get on out there, rake some leaves, toss in some kitchen scraps, season with a dash of local soil, and cook up some rot.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My new garden tool an adorable little 4x6 trailer from Tractor Supply:

I can't think why it took me so long to do this. For years I've paid ridiculous delivery fees for rocks and gravel, or borrowed other people's trucks or trailers to haul around big stuff, or struggled to fit eight board feet of lumber in six feet of space in a car, and each time I'd think, "I really need a small truck."

But I had no interest in owning a truck as an extra vehicle; I'd only use it a couple of dozen trips a year, and then the rest of the time it would sit around taking up space.

Nor did it make sense to sell my car and replace it with a truck, which isn't as fuel efficient, just because I need the hauling capacity a few times a year.

So I dilly-dallied and dragged my feet, all the while resenting those hefty fees and inconvenient delivery schedules. And it was especially annoying this fall, when I was working on the front garden. Installing an homage to an arroyo apparently takes a lot of rock.

And then, a stroke of brilliance: A trailer would solve my problems. It is cheap, easy to store, and doesn't require extra fuel except when in use.

I did a little research and found out that a 2002 Subaru Outback is rated to haul 2000 pounds with trailer brakes and 1000 without.* Since I probably wouldn't load the trailer with any more than I could move in a single day, my heaviest cargo would probably only be around 600 pounds or so.

There were some things I needed to make happen to in order to enter this amazing new world of hauling-ness. First I had to get a hitch and wiring for the wagon. Then I had to march down to the state office and pick up a "Texas Trailer" license plate (boy howdy, does that ever make me feel like using a drawl). And then finally, today I painted a piece of exterior grade plywood to use as a floor for the trailer (otherwise, all that gravel will just wiggle on through the bottom):

The paint color is suspiciously like that of our house trim. Not sure how that happened.

Having a trailer around makes me feel all moxie and can-do, and that is just fine with me, since I can't abide a helpless woman, even when she is me. This strikes me as both a self-sufficient and sustainable approach to a problem.

I figure that ten trips hauling stuff and the trailer will have paid for itself. So if you need me to haul that antique bureau you found in a dumpster, or a load of fencing supplies, or a bushel or eight of fresh corn, just give me a call. I aim to amortize this thing toute suite.

Oh, and by the way, I am already working toward that amortization, since I used it to carry home the plywood I am using for the floor. I can count that, can't I?

Nine more trips to go.

*It's my understanding that a 2009 Outback is rated to haul even more--up to 3000 pounds. I'm passing along this info not to tout the virtues of Subarus, but to illustrate that our cars may be more utilitarian than we give them credit for being. In fact, what really convinced me to take the plunge and get a small trailer, is seeing a huge one behind a Saturn Vue, driven by someone replacing part of my driveway. That trailer was in turn loaded with 10-12 bags of concrete. That's behind a hybrid, people! Once I saw that, the tiny can-do wheels in my brain started churning...

So if, like me, you've been agitating over the "I need a small truck question," do a little research and find out what your car is capable of doing. I found my info in the service manual that came with mine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Busy Week at the Bike Garden

Janisse Ray is coming, y'all. For the faithful LBB friends of the Bike Garden (FLFBG?), she'll be doing a reading on Friday at 8 PM, on the TTU campus, in ENGL 001. Ray wrote Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which has won all sorts of awards, most notably, the American Book Award. It's a memoir of her childhood growing up in a junkyard in southern Georgia, and if that doesn't sound interesting to you right there, I just don't know what else to say.

Ray is a wickedly passionate advocate for the environment, and will probably have a few words to share about that, too. Plus, she's just as nice as can be.

Come on out. Bring a book for her to sign--if you don't have one of your own, I'm working on getting few copies to sell after the reading (though I can't guarantee it) we'll have plenty of copies at the reading (they will also be available in the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on campus from now until Friday). Cookies and amusing cheeses will be served. I think.

Anyway, I have much to do to get ready for it, on top of the usual mess that is my life, so my own traffic in the BGarden may be light this week. I have a lot of garden and bike stuff to report from the trip, though, so I'll try my best to get some of it posted as soon as I am able.

Oh, and for those of you who would like to hear about Natural History and Humanities news like this, you can now become a fan of NHH on Facebook. Just go there and type the name of the program into the search box and sign up. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Morning Comes to the Seawall, Galveston, Texas

As seen while eating my breakfast.

While going through photos of my trip, this one struck me as interesting in that the colors in the concrete seem, oddly, to mirror those of the earth, sea, and sky. Click on the photo to enlarge it for the full effect...

What trick of light is this, what corporal jest, that one should become the other?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Butterflies, et cetera, in Galveston

It's been a busy week at CAST, but I've taken breaks off and on to stroll through a small garden on the premises here at Moody Gardens, where I found a gazillion butterflies busy working the flowers. The only camera I had with me was my iPhone, so the quality of the photos is not stellar, but here are a few shots:

A Red Admiral

Two Monarchs, um,  stuck together.

A Queen.

I am no butterfly expert, but I was able to identify the Monarch and Queen with Meredith's help from her recent post on Great Stems, and the Red Admiral with help from my friend Zoeann Stinchcomb, from Texas Parks and Wildlife (TP&W), who was also here at the conference.

There is also an very nice aquarium here, and as I am a sucker for them, I naturally had to take a look:

That last shot was a school of fish swimming over my head as I walked through a tunnel of water. I loved the swirl of light and dark.

I've also taken time to eat, as well one might, and went out for food with a couple of people from TP&W at the Mosquito Cafe, which was hit hard in last year's Hurricane Ike. Here's a plaque on the wall that commemorates the high water mark, with Zoeann standing in front of it for scale:

The restaurant has been completely renovated and it shines with spit and polish. The food was great, too, though I presume that spitting and polishing were not involved in its preparation.

I head home today, with a detour through Austin. Pam at Digging has suggested stopping off at Ima Hogg's garden in Houston--I am tempted, but I'm going to have to see how the time goes. It's been a long week and I feel beat down, but a stop at a garden might just be the ticket to perk me back up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Sun is Riz, The Sun is Set

There's an old saying about driving across The Great State that goes like this: "The sun is riz, the sun is set, and here we is, in Texas yet."

I had to drive from LBB to Galveston for a conference this week, and my friends, let me tell you, The Great State is BIG. It just goes on, and on, and on...and on...

So there is this: I live at one end of the state, and Galveston lives at the other. The drive was nice enough, but it was simply too long and stressful, what with taking wrong exits and roads all day, an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction at a lunch stop in San Antonio, and--I swear, this is absolutely true!--a street person stepping in front of my car on I-45 in bumper-to-bumper, 50 mile-an-hour traffic in the heart of downtown Houston, and proceeding to stroll nonchalantly across eight lanes of traffic, all of which stopped on a dime and waited patiently for him to cross. I just about had a heart attack.

And then, finally, Galveston. What can I say? It is a strange, unnerving mix of brand new and battered, the legacy of last year's hurricane. Some buildings still have sagging roofs and plywood up where windows ought to be, and they sit cheek to jowl next to sparkling new structures. But what is most disturbing are the trees, many of which which look tattered and worn out, or in some cases, dying or dead. I know that this is the nature of the coastal environment, and that given time, it will recover, but at the end of the stretched out day, it was dispiriting to see.

I drove to the convention center, set up my booth in a hot and stuffy exhibitor's hall, and went looking for some food. I was so grumpy and out of sorts by that time, I wasn't looking for anything special, so I stopped at the first thing I recognized as a restaurant, McAlester's Deli, on Seawall Boulevard. As the name of the street implies, it is right smack dab on the ocean, and when I got out of my car, this is what I saw:

I waited for a break in the traffic and did my own version of strolling across the street to have a look. The sounds and smells of the sea were all about me, and in the distance the lights of shrimp boats drifted like stars across the black horizon. And my tired, unsettled, chattering spirit went quiet.

The convention this week (The Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching, or CAST) is set at a place called Moody Gardens, the name of which I find promising. I'm down here hawking our degree program, but I'll take a break sometime and have a look around to see if there are in fact any gardens. If I see anything interesting, I'll let you know. In the meantime, y'all be sure to look both ways when you cross the street. Ciao!