Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

Continue reading…

More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

Continue reading…

Using a Whirley-Pop to Roast Coffee

Maybe not such a good idea to use an electric popcorn popper . . .

One of the perils of creating how-to books and blog posts is when one of your bits of advice blows up in your face after writing about it. Such is the case with my suggestion of roasting coffee in a hot air popcorn popper. Yesterday, my West Bend Air Crazy popcorn popper made good on the crazy in its name, started smoking and stopped working in the midst of coffee roasting.

In my guilt ridden imagination I can already see dolphins choking on the remains of my now useless West Bend Air Crazy. I can also imagine the letter from the West Bend legal team reminding me that I was using the air popper for something it was never designed to do. And then there’s the ire of West Bend’s Chinese factory workers cursing my privileged lifestyle. But worst of all is the wailing of wives and husbands angry that their partners had been suckered into the idea of roasting coffee at home with an air popper on the advice of some dumb blogger.

Let me make amends. My coffee geek friends use a manual, hand cranked stove top popcorn popper called the Whirley-Pop. Here’s why:

  • You can roast a much bigger batch.
  • You have more control over the roasting process (by regulating the heat on the stove).
  • No electronic parts, thus nothing to break down.
  • You can roast over a fire if your utilities go out. Having caffeine (if you’re the addicted sort) during a hurricane/earthquake/Mayan apocalypse is really important.
  • Root Simple is supposedly about “Low Tech Home Tech.” There ain’t nothing low tech about a plastic hot air popper.

There are a few disadvantages to the Whirley-Pop:

  • Not plug and play. You have to stand over the stove, regulate the heat and turn the crank.
  • Smoke can set off fire alarms–harder to take outside than the air popper.

My air popper might have lasted longer had I roasted coffee in it without the top on as one reader suggested. I could also have just ended up with a bad popper. Apologies to anyone who rushed out to get an air popper. Maybe it will work better than mine did.

At least with our high tech blog I can correct mistakes. It would be harder if Root Simple was a mimeographed newsletter–the Whirley-Pop of information delivery methods. But we’ll see what format the blog is in after this week’s Mayan apocalypse . . .

Homesteading Disasters: The Skunk Menace

Franky, I think our mistakes are more interesting and educational than the high-horse blog posts we typically churn out. I’m hoping, in fact, to collect our misadventures into a little booklet of homesteading disasters. To that end, I’ll periodically write about the latest problem around the Root Simple Compound starting today with how fun it is to garden with skunks.

Angry red arrows mark skunk dig sites in our new keyhole bed.

I know that I’ve got a skunk problem. Yet each year when I sow lettuce seeds I get lazy about putting up the required bird net barrier over the beds. Or I haphazardly put it up, thinking that the skunks aren’t smart enough to squeeze through any gaps. And each year I wake up the morning after planting to a kind of vegetable garden apocalypse–dozens of V shaped holes, overturned seedlings and scattered seeds. And each year I swear off vegetable gardening entirely.

Actual photo of absent-minded conquistadors.

So what’s the science behind this? Why do skunks dig? Skunks dig for doubloons dropped by absent-minded conquistadors many generations ago here in California. Our gardens in Los Angeles are thick in doubloons. In fact, if it weren’t for my metal detector I’d never be able to pay our inflated mortgage. Remember, our crumbling 92 year old bungalow (located in the “hippest neighborhood in America” according to Forbes Magazine) is worth more than an entire town in Indiana. So these damn skunks are not only ruining my vegetables, but they are taking a big bite out of our house payments. Well, actually, they are digging for grubs in the compost but that’s not as exiting as the buried Spanish treasure theory.

The moral here: you gotta make time to fence off the veggies. For us that means hoops with bird netting carefully stretched out and held down by bricks. There’s no easy way out short of hiring 24 hour guards (off duty conquistadors perhaps?) And let’s not even talk about the deer menace! Deer harassed readers are welcome to share their horror stories in the comments.

More on that kooky new keyhole garden in another post . . . 

Homesteading Disasters: The Skunk Menace

Franky, I think our mistakes are more interesting and educational than the high-horse blog posts we typically churn out. I’m hoping, in fact, to collect our misadventures into a little booklet of homesteading disasters. To that end, I’ll periodically write about the latest problem around the Root Simple Compound starting today with how fun it is to garden with skunks.

Angry red arrows mark skunk dig sites in our new keyhole bed.

I know that I’ve got a skunk problem. Yet each year when I sow lettuce seeds I get lazy about putting up the required bird net barrier over the beds. Or I haphazardly put it up, thinking that the skunks aren’t smart enough to squeeze through any gaps. And each year I wake up the morning after planting to a kind of vegetable garden apocalypse–dozens of V shaped holes, overturned seedlings and scattered seeds. And each year I swear off vegetable gardening entirely.

Actual photo of absent-minded conquistadors.

So what’s the science behind this? Why do skunks dig? Skunks dig for doubloons dropped by absent-minded conquistadors many generations ago here in California. Our gardens in Los Angeles are thick in doubloons. In fact, if it weren’t for my metal detector I’d never be able to pay our inflated mortgage. Remember, our crumbling 92 year old bungalow (located in the “hippest neighborhood in America” according to Forbes Magazine) cost more than an entire town in Kansas. So these damn skunks are not only ruining my vegetables, but they are taking a big bite out of our house payments.*

The moral here: you gotta make time to fence off the veggies. For us that means hoops with bird netting carefully stretched out and held down by bricks. There’s no easy way out short of hiring 24 hour guards (off duty conquistadors perhaps?) And let’s not even talk about the deer menace (which, thankfully, we don’t have)! Deer harassed readers are welcome to share their horror stories in the comments.

More on that kooky new keyhole garden in another post . . .  

*Ed. note:  Skunks are actually digging for insects. The irony is that better soil (moist, rich with life, etc.) invariably attracts skunks. In that way, you may wish to consider skunk attacks a sign of gardening success.

Shibori Challenge Proves Challenging

So it’s May 15 and I have not met the terms of the Shibori Challenge. I have been playing with both natural dyes and shibori techniques, but have not yet made anything worthy of being sewn up into a cocktail napkin.

I think I’ll have declare my challenge a little over-optimistic. As it when I start any new craft, I’m hitting various walls and spinning around trying to figure out what’s what. But that’s okay. Our motto around here is Go Forth, Embrace Failure, and give Her a Big Kiss.

The foraged, plant-based dyes I’ve been working with are only producing pale tones for me, even with mordants. I’ve made a sort of olive grey out of mint and a light sage out of artichoke and a beige out of coffee. These shades are fine in themselves, especially if you want to dress like a hobbit, but not really strong enough to show off shibori patterns. I know it’s possible to get strong colors out of common plants–it seems other people manage it–but I’m beginning to understand why indigo is the classic choice for shibori techniques.

Wanting to play with shibori and having no luck with local plants, I experimented with turmeric. Turmeric is a “fugitive dye” — a phrase I love — meaning it will fade fast. It fades especially fast in sunlight. Nonetheless, it’s nontoxic and makes a bright, deep yellow with no fuss. And I just happened to have a big container of stale turmeric just wasting away on the shelf. I tried some shibori techniques with that, with some okay first time results — though also with plenty of beginner mistakes.

Continue reading…

Avoiding Hyperthermia

When spending a day baking pizzas at a public event in front of a 1000º F oven in the full Southern California sun remember to drink water and take breaks. Otherwise you will spend the next day in bed with a splitting headache, unable to eat, barely able to drink anything and at the mercy of two young cats.

The first time I pulled off a case of hyperthermia was after a long bike ride. I would not call it fun, nor would I like this to happen when in the backwoods on a long backpacking trip. It also prevents coherent blogging. I’ll be back tomorrow with a plethora of home ec tips . . .

Yet More Urban Homesteading Mistakes

My new excuse: I didn’t write it, the kitten did!

Three of my favorite Root Simple compound blunders happened this week.

Yesterday I announced a “Vermincomposting” class. I meant vermicomposting, of course, but I’d point out that it is good to remember that vermin are actually compostable, along with everything biological –including bloggers.

Earlier this week I meant to mention Native Americans  but, due to the lazy application of spell checking software this came out as “Naive Americans”.  Now, as I’m sure most readers of this blog would agree there actually is a class of Naive Americans. Maybe they’ll get around to opening some casinos. Oh, wait, Naive Americans go to casinos, they probably don’t operate them. This mistake reminds me of when the UCLA student newspaper, in a similar spell checking blunder, announced that the orchestra I was in would be playing Beethoven’s “Erotica Symphony”.

Lastly, I stained some cement pavers with iron sulfate and blogged about it. What I forgot to mention is that, the day before, I had accidentally reached for the bag of garden sulfur rather than iron sulfate and carefully brushed all 16 pavers with sulfur. The next day, noticing that nothing had happened, I realized that rather than staining the pavers I had, every so slightly, acidified them.

Time for those much delayed mindfulness exercises.

Urban Homesteading Mistakes: Landscape Fabric

Since you all seem to enjoy accounts of our many failures around the Root Simple compound, I thought I’d share what must be one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. It’s a error up in our great chandelier of failures along with buying a 91 year old house on a hill with a bad foundation.

Two words for you: landscape fabric–that plastic stuff sold in rolls at big box stores that allegedly blocks out weeds. Just after we bought our “crack” house I started constructing brick paths and decomposed granite walkways (another mistake we’ll blog about later). I thought it would be good idea to lay down landscape fabric to keep weeds from poking up. So why is landscape fabric a bad idea?

  1. It’s made of plastic.
  2. It rips.
  3. It just plain doesn’t work.

After a few years Bermuda grass will inevitably poke up through it and you’ll end up with what you can see in the photo above. To repeat: landscape fabric doesn’t work and is a waste of money.

My favorite alternative is a very thick (minimum 4-inch, but preferably more) layer of mulch. The added benefit with mulch is that you build soil over time. With landscape fabric you just add another piece of plastic to the landfill. I know some folks swear by cardboard, and in certain situations cardboard is probably OK, but I still prefer, when possible, just piling up the mulch. You get better water penetration with mulch and you don’t have the problem of bits of cardboard floating up to the surface.

So, my two cents: don’t add landscape fabric to your landscape.