Thursday, May 31, 2012

Humane pest control: Birds

We've been having a problem with Eurasian collared doves roosting in my neighbor Nancy's pecan tree, right over the spot where we park our cars at night. They have been making quite the mess.

Tired of driving around in a car covered in a crusty topping of bird poo, I took the advice from another neighbor and bought a plastic owl from my nursery, thinking to put it in Nancy's tree. I didn't have time to do it right away, however, and so I temporarily stuck it on top of the rain tank shown in this photo:

Miracle of miracles, the poo ceased raining from the heavens pecan tree. I left it there for a few days and we got a bit of a respite, but since the instructions said to move the owl every few days, I did that. Apparently it was to a spot that less obvious to the doves, however, since they came back and the poo storm started up again. So I moved it back and it stopped.

Last night I finally got around to asking Nancy if I could put the owl in the pecan tree. She agreed, though she was skeptical (as was I, still, a little bit). I put the owl in the crotch of the tree and secured it using an old bicycle tube. It might not be the ideal spot in the tree, but I was afraid to climb any higher on the ladder:

This morning I peeked out my window and saw a clean car.

Maybe it works? I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Speaking of galvanized rain barrels...

...I saw this nice one at the Biltmore Estates while at the 2012 Garden Bloggers Fling in Asheville:
Isn't it adorable? I like the looks of my galvanized rain barrels, and I've got the system down now where they are fairly easy to install. But ever the tinkerer, now I'm wondering if I could make something similar to this.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Setting up a galvanized stock tank as a rain barrel

Though I've written about setting up galvanized stock tanks as rain catchment before, I've refined my techniques somewhat since then, so I thought I'd do an update post on the topic, with particular attention to things I've tweaked. I'll link to my earlier posts at the bottom, which show some additional detail on construction.

First, I used to think it would be nice to have a lot of catchment in one place, with either one large cistern that could hold a 1000 gallons, or a row of tanks. And indeed I've even had a couple of largish tanks linked together in places. What I've found, though, is that I prefer to have single tanks set up strategically at each corner of the house, as it makes delivering the water to the garden an easier task. Also, the tanks are not huge (two 50 gallon and two 100 gallon), but I have found that they are sufficient for supplemental watering. My goal is to have the landscaping part of the garden need only occasional watering during extreme drought. I'm hoping that the rainwater I collect and store will be enough to allow me to go completely off the city water grid in the next couple of years (for the purposes of landscaping or gardening). In other words, I am planting things I expect to survive under desert conditions, and as such, any irrigation that might occur would merely be a friendly boost.

Here is my set up at present:

Two in the front, where they blend in nicely with the landscape:

And two in the back (though I'm only showing one here, as the other was temporarily decommissioned in order to install some siding, and I haven't gotten it back on line yet):
The set up above is one I just re-installed. It too was temporarily decommissioned so that some siding could be attached, and I took the opportunity to clean and refurbish it. It will be used to irrigate an espaliered fig tree that I will be planting to the left. This tank is the first I ever set up, some dozen or so years ago, and since then, I've refined my technique quite a bit. So I'll use the new install as a quick primer on setting up a galvanized tank for collecting and storing rainwater.

First, I elevate the tank, to make it easier to attach hoses and fill watering cans:
Second, I make a cedar lid, which I paint with a weatherproofing stain to make it last longer and look nicer. I've found that though I like the weathered look of cedar on a fence or bench, for some reason it looks like trashy junk on a rain barrel.

I wait until the gutter guy installs the downspout and I can see exactly where the opening will be, then I cut a hole in the top and attach a gutter splash guard. You can find these at the hardware store in the rain gutter supply section:

I then attach mosquito screen attached to the underside of the lid. I staple the screen about two inches from the edge, so that when the lid sits on the top of the tank, it drapes over and creates a seal:

If the lid is going on one of the larger tanks, I make a hinged section, as demonstrated below by my neighbor Karen. This makes it easier to check the quality or level of the water, perform any needed maintenance, or fill a watering can.

I attach a no-kink hose bib to a three-inch long, 3/4" galvanized pipe. Some tanks come with a 3/4" threaded opening, and others do not. If it does not, the pipe can be installed by using thin nuts, as seen in these two photos:

The interior nut also has a rubber gasket to prevent leakage. I put it on the inside, where it seems to last longer than one used on the outside, exposed to sunlight.

I cut an opening for an overflow tube using a step unibit, which can be found on Amazon for a very reasonable price.

At your local Bog Box Hardware, you can find swankier versions of these in the electrical contractor section of the hardware store, where they are usually kept under lock and key to imply that you need to pay an arm and leg for them. Don't ask me how I know this.

You might as well order one now from Amazon so that it will be ready for you to use on your new tank. Go ahead, I'll wait.

The overflow tube is a flexible tubing also found in the electrical section. It has two threaded ends, and comes with gaskets, nuts, and couplings that screw on. These make it easy both to attach the tube to the tank, and then a hose to the tubing:

Though the nut makes the coupling is unnecessary to attach the tubing, the coupling comes in handy for another reason, since I can cut a small piece of screen and place it inside it to keep mosquitoes from making their way into the take via the overflow tube. IT IS VITAL TO SCREEN EVEN THE SMALLEST OPENING TO PREVENT MOSQUITOES FROM BREEDING.*

You can also attach screening like this:

And there you have it, the tank is now ready to go.

Here are some earlier posts on setting up connected tanks that you might also find useful. In them, I use a different tool for cutting the opening, but it is even more ridiculously expensive than the unibit from the Big Box, so unless you have an electrical contractor friend, don't even try it.

Now I'll show you mine
Rainwater Harvesting: Making the connection
Rainwater Harvesting: Putting a lid on it 

*From time to time, people suggest that I put mosquito dunks in my tanks, and I have done this in the past. In my experience, however, they just don't seem to work. Instead, I find that being extremely diligent about closing off openings is much more effective. So don't get lulled into thinking that you can just drop in a dunk and slack off on this vital part of the construction. Think like a mosquito! Be the mosquito! Find those openings and then close them off.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Photos from the Fling

For several days last week I was in Asheville, North Carolina for the annual Garden Bloggers' Fling. It was a great opportunity to see old friends, meet new people, talk about the business of garden design and writing, and of course, tour gardens. This year's Fling gave me a lot to think about and no doubt much of that musing will be making its way into upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, here are my favorite photos from the many Asheville gardens we saw:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Handmade Garden Projects: A Virtual Book Tour

I was recently invited by Timber Press to participate in a virtual book tour for the launch of a new book, Handmade Garden Projects, by Lorene Edwards Forkner. Naturally, when I saw the title I leaped at the chance, mainly because I saw it as an opportunity to get a free book about, well, garden projects.

And you all know how I feel about a good project.

By and by a copy of the book arrived in the mail. I had to wait a few days to get a good look at it, though, because there was all this pesky end-o-semester stuff to get out of the way. It wasn't so much an issue about not being able to find time to read the book. It was more that I was a afraid that once I started, I'd want to stop everything and head out to the shop to look for my drill and hammer.

Sure enough, when I did finally sit down and read it, I found the book chock full of good ideas, ranging from easy stuff that can be cobbled together in a few minutes, to slightly more complex projects that will take a while to complete. Even so, each of the projects comes with clear, concise instructions, complete with a materials and tools list, so the beginner should not be intimidated at all to try any of them. In fact, this is a book I heartily recommend to someone who has not done a lot of building and tinkering, as Lorene does a fine job of not only inspiring you to pick up the tools, she walks you through the scary bits so easily you might not even realize you weren't born with a screwdriver in your hand.

Some of my favorite projects include a simple water fountain made from a large pot (how I wish I'd received the book before I went out and bought a pot water fountain!), a cocktail table made out of glass, cobblestones, and the kind of wire used to reinforce concrete, and lanterns made out of canning jars and simple touch lights. My favorite, however, is one of the simplest projects of all--and destined to become part of my own garden: "fireflies" made out of magnets, wafer batteries, and LED lights. I am already planning a summer party, just so I can use these.

One of the things I really appreciated about the book is the use of "found" and recycled materials. Most of the projects in here are very affordable, and give the garden a quirky, artisanal look.

I had the opportunity to email Lorene and ask her a few questions (it is a "book tour", after all), and here they are, along with her replies:

ST: I can trace my own interest in making things to my father, who was an inveterate tinkerer and inventor. What is your own background? What got you interested/started in constructing things?
LEF: Earning my crafting “chops” has largely been a matter of economic necessity and “what if” experimenting. I still have the same fascination and preoccupation with making things that I had as a child when I first discovered craft books at my local public library. I also have 2 giant garbage bags filled with shaved wood excelsior in my shed right now; a direct result of this early craft education. I had never heard of this “exotic” material, yet it appeared again and again as a necessary ingredient in all the really cool craft projects.  Note: it’s packing material easily obtained from your local nursery when they receive a shipment of glazed containers from overseas and it’s free! Now to come up with a project that uses excelsior!  Childhood crafting led to a degree in Fine Art where I learned to factor in form, texture, color and form; composition and balance.  But formal training still takes a backseat to childhood exploration.
ST: What advice would you give to someone who says s/he is all thumbs and can't build things?
LEF: Go loose!  Start on projects that are more process oriented and dig in.  The rustic troughs are really just playing with mud pies and the rough, decidedly non-polished finished project is the best part of the project.  The materials are easily obtained at the corner hardware (although the packaging is such that you’ll have way more than you need to make a few troughs – a perfect excuse to gather some friends and have a mud-pie party!)  Some of my most successful projects came about simply experimenting  with “stuff” I had in the basement or my garden shed, or in response to a need in the garden. Black bamboo poles from a huge stand that “migrated” from my neighbor’s lot became bean teepees, and tomato cages and eventually morphed into a structure so beautiful I’m loathe to plant anything on it because I don’t want to hide it!
ST: What is your favorite project you've ever made?
LEF: So hard to say.  I’m very fond of the flame-free canning jar lanterns which are dead simple and charming in the garden after dark… but my heart is always with the totally silly handmade fireflies.  Not much to look at by light of day – this simple combination of an LED light bulb, a coin battery and a craft magnet are magical after dark!

If you are looking to do a little tinkering this summer, you could do worse than check out some of the ideas in Handmade Garden Projects. At a minimum, you will be inspired; at a maximum, it will keep you off the streets this summer while you build that funky cocktail table.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Garden Blogger Bloom Day

I don't usually participate in the glorious monthly event that is Garden Blogger Bloom Day, started by my friend Carol over at May Dreams Garden, not for any special reason other than that I am a spacey, self-absorbed person and tend to forget trivial things, like, say, dates and stuff.

Anyway, it is the 15th day of the month, when those of us who blog about our gardens are supposed to run outside and take beautiful photos of what is blooming there. As it happens, I was thinking about Carol today because I'm going to see her in a couple of days at the annual Garden Bloggers Fling. The Fling is this amazing, nearly indescribable gathering of garden writers, and is in effect what passes for a conference if you happen to be one of that tribe--only instead of sitting through boring academic papers, we go tour gardens and talk about writing. The academy could take a lesson from this.

So, while thinking about Carol, I also happened to pass by this rather spectacular ice plant, which to my eye looks rather stunning in its big blue pot, and thought, "Aha!"

So there you go. However, I'm not going to crawl around the garden and take any more photos (even though there is quite a bit blooming), as I've got a bit of a wonky back at the moment. Be grateful instead for this small miracle.

In other news: Tomorrow I'll be reviewing this book as part of a virtual blog tour by the author, Lorene Edwards Forkner, who appears to be a woman after my own tinker heart:
It's a book I think people would enjoy and find useful, so check back in for my report.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Moving water in the garden

We've long had a problem with water and ice on our front landing. In the winter, snow on the roof  will melt during the day and run off, forming a sheet of thick, hard-to-remove ice below. I had always planned at some point to add gutters to the front of the house, primarily for the purpose of rain catchment, but because the overhang is actually lower than the eaves, it wasn't going to be an easy solution to direct the water without creating unsightly gutter and downspout lines everywhere.

My solution was to create a gutter for just the overhang, and direct the water down a rain chain, shown here during a recent shower:

But the problem didn't stop there, since a pool of water on the steps could cause just as much trouble in freezing weather as on the landing. So the rain chain feeds water into the blue pot, into which I cut a hole and installed some copper pipe I had lying around, just waiting to be used on a project like this pipe. (Edited to add this information: To drill the hole I used a diamond saw bit you can find in the tile section of a hardware store; these are used to cut holes for plumbing in tiled shower stalls. This bit came with the gray dam you see taped to the pot. The dam is filled with water to keep the bit cool as you cut.):

The pipe is secured to the pot with silicone caulk. I have not completely covered the hole that was in the bottom of the blue pot, which allows standing water to leak out slowly, eliminating the possibility of mosquitoes breeding there. You can see it working here during the rain:
This might create some ice during the winter, but it is on the edge of the steps, so there may be a way I can engineer something that will direct it more to the side. Or, alternatively, I could just plug the hole in winter. 

The pipe then carries the water into one of the xeric beds. It is pretty unobstrusive, but even if it weren't I like the thought of a water-carrying pipe running through a xeric garden. It evokes the historic spirit of desert people, moving water through an arid land:
We've been having some lovely spring showers in the past few days, allowing me to see if the system works, and I'm happy to report that it does. As seen here, the water trickles out of the pipe at the base of some false yuccas:

Et voila. I love a good engineering project.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Work on the new back garden begins

I've had an epiphany of sorts and it is this: I need to design a garden that can withstand winter temperatures in the single digits, summer temperatures in the 100+ range, and an annual rainfall of 5 inches. Oh, and in the back garden, this all takes place in the shade of five pecan trees.

No problem. That sounds to me like a high New Mexico/Arizona desert. I know deserts; I grew up in one. I can do this.

For inspiration I'm looking to other deserts, some of which have had beautiful gardens for centuries. In particular, I've been busy studying Mexican, Moroccan, and Andalusian gardens, which always have at their center an homage to water--not surprising to me, since those of us who live in deserts consider water a holy thing.

So I started with water. Here is the homage that I installed this weekend:

There is other homag-y stuff going on here. For example, I used a turquoise pot as a nod to my New Mexico roots, but blue ceramic--as seen all over the desert southwest--can also be found in those other desert gardens. The corrugated sheet metal and the rusty star, of course, are pure Texan (stars are to Texas gardens as pineapples are to gardens in the coastal northeast).

But more importantly, homage-wise, I once spent countless hours of my life wandering up and down desert arroyos, where I occasionally found the vestigial, partial remnants of earlier homesteads. Often they were just bits and pieces of a structure--so much so that it was sometimes hard to determine the original purpose of an item, and it filled me with a delicious sense of mystery about the people who had lived there. I wanted this structure to evoke the same sense of the unexpected, "stumble-upon-a-mystery," as if it had been something a woman homesteader might have built in order to remember water in a dry time--cobbled up out of scraps, but also perhaps with something precious that had been brought from another land and another life left behind.

Of course, she might need a re-circulating pump. And electricity.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On the good news front

Harold was barking frantically at something he saw through the front window not too long ago, and when I looked outside I saw a neighbor standing in the front garden with a stranger. I wasn't alarmed, though, since I knew the neighbor was converting to a xeriscape in response to LBB's stage two water restrictions. She'd already warned me that she was going to bring her landscaper down to show him which plants she liked.

The front garden, in contrast to the back, is one that I've been slowly converting to a xeriscape for the past 15 years, and this year it has really come into its own. I find myself spending countless hours out on the front patio, under the shade of the umbrella, reading or writing, or simply chatting with the neighbors as they walk by.

I also spend a lot of time watching the comings and goings at this simple little water feature I've installed, which is very popular with other kinds of neighbors:

I had a long term plan for the garden, way back when I first started it, thinking I'd add the big elements as time and money allowed. This year I finally finished off the last of the big stuff, with the addition of some decomposed granite in two flower beds and some buried drip irrigation. As a finishing touch, I added several big blue pots for a color accent. I figure that blue pots look good all year, with or without plants. As it happens, I've populated these with succulents, which will need less watering than petunias:

I've turned this blue pot, shown here in this morning's welcome rain, into a little water engineering project, about which I'll talk about in a post in a couple of weeks, after the last component is installed:

And finally, I've recently had quite a few other people besides my neighbor asking me the names of plants in the garden. So I've decided to add some plant markers:

To close on a completely unrelated note, as many of you know, I have been serving as my neighborhood association president for a little over a year now. When I say "neighborhood association," some people might think that it has something to do with covenants covering the heights of fences, or what kind of lawn you are allowed to have. In reality, though, that is not what this is about at all. Instead, the NA spends nearly all of its time on projects related to the quality of life in our community--how to foster it and how to protect it. This year, for example, we are working hard to get our own farmer's market up and running. It has been a challenge, with its own special roadblocks, but in the end, it will be worth it.

The year has not been without frustration and heartache, but it has been loaded with bright spots, too. After every board meeting, in fact, I come away filled with new hope for the world--yes, the world, not just the neighborhood, for how can the world fail if we have so many good people in our midst?

After a meeting with the farmer's market committee on Sunday (a bright spot, but with challenges), followed by a chance meeting with two people who want to serve on a committee that is just being formed (concerning a potentially serious problem), I was trying to express to Walu how I felt about serving as a leader in our small community. There did not seem to be one word that came close to describing the complexity of what I was feeling at the end of the day. It wasn't happiness, since that seemed not to acknowledge any of the worry or tension, of which there has been a great deal. And it wasn't frustration, since that leaves out the satisfaction and joy of being around people who are working hard together toward solutions.

Anyway, in this context I have been lately thinking about Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was a woman very concerned with matters about community, and has long been an inspiration for me. I was recently reading a book of hers, Every Day is a Good Day, and I ran across this comment she made about two women of community that she admired: "...Roberta and Debra, who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves."

Who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves...

That about says it all, doesn't it? I'm thinking that a person could do worse than live that kind of life.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reframing my ideas about the back garden

Between last year's drought, this year's construction, and the ravaging affects of four dogs, the back garden is a worn and weary place. Much still survives back there, however, including my optimism. This is a perfect opportunity to rethink the garden design and to create something that is much more resistant to tough, dry years like the one we just had here on the Southern High Plains. I think that's important because like it or not, believe it or not, climate change is already happening, and I think there is a strong chance we'll see more tough years in the future.

So maybe it seems funny to you that I'm talking about optimism and a tough climate future in the same paragraph, but there it is. Change is here; might as well start figuring out how we're going to live with it. It is time to reframe our thinking about the garden.

So here are some before photos of the back garden in its current beat up, drought stricken state:

Trust me, it used to be a lovely place--a kind of sylvan woodland glade, if you will. Alas, it is no more, and it will never be that again. An arid climate simply will not support many of the plants that might have once thrived here. Despair not, however, for over the next couple of years it will be reborn as a high desert courtyard space, with Mexican/Morrocan/Texas influences. That blue pot fountain in the photo above is new, and should provide a hint of things to come. I'll start first with the hardscaping, since it is already too late to be planting anything with any hopes of establishing it before the heat hits. First up on the project list (hopefully this coming weekend) is to build new corrugated sheet metal planter boxes using recycled redwood for this patio area:
 I'll keep you posted on my progress.

P.S. that new siding looks awesome, don't you think? And the best part? The house no longer leaks like a sieve in a hard thunderstorm.