Saturday, April 30, 2011

Watergarden from start to finish

Here briefly is the build sequence for our watergarden, which includes a disappearing fountain and a kettle pond. 

The kettle and fountain came from Nelson Water Gardens in Katy, Texas - an awesome, awesome store that I recommend visiting just for the experience of it, even if you have no intention of putting anything like this in your own yard.  The stone and aggregate materials came from Living Earth Technology in League City Texas and Wayne's Landscape Supply in Houston Texas.
1. We started with an unremarkable patch of lawn next to the house.
2.  We have a bit of artistic potential but not much developed skill.  Therefore, any large object that comes into our house gets cut out of cardboard first, so we can truly see what the final product will look like.  Seriously, the new furniture I bought first had to validate as cardboard footprints.  The LCD TV we bought was carefully sized via cardboard on the wall before we bought it.  Using cardboard mock-ups is the aesthetic equivalent of "measure twice, cut once".
3.  Next step was to de-sod and start rough-fitting the first course of chopped sandstone.
4.  Leveling the wall takes a bit of skill.  This is an extremely important step.  You can see that the ground is higher next to the house slab, such that the nearest sandstone piece is actually "diving into" the ground in order to remain on the level with the distal corner. 
5.  Weed-impermeable landscape fabric was added to the bottom - VERY important!
6.  For simplicity and because I tend to change my design-mind a lot (later ripping out many of our creations), I didn't want to make this a permanent installation by cementing the rocks.  Therefore, the sandstone is simply dry-stacked, BUT there's no way that dry-stacked rock will hold against shear pressures imposed by gravel.  For this reason, we used a strip of hardware cloth around the inside perimeter...
7.  Hardware cloth was tethered in the corners for added strength...
8. ...and we drove about a dozen 18-inch rebar stakes between the cloth and the stacked stone for added strength.
9.  Next comes the pea gravel.  Because I had ordered a pallet of stacked stone, the gravel could not be delivered in bulk (the delivery truck was a flat-bed rather than a dump).  It, too, came on a pallet in 40-pound sacks.  The garden footprint, which measures approximately 9 feet by 5 feet, took about 1,600 pounds of gravel.  I recycled the 40 heavy-gauge plastic sacks.
10.  During the rest of this build procedure, we started messing around with the layout for the disappearing fountain base.  Whereas it was fairly easy to solve the jigsaw puzzle of getting all rocks in the garden base to fit, the fountain base was another story because of its smaller size.  We had to sort through about half of the pallet of sandstone to find just the right stones for these tight tolerances.
11.  For added stability around the base of the disappearing fountain, we laid strips of hardware cloth on top of the pea gravel (later covering them up with another layer of pea gravel).  In retrospect, angular stones might have locked in and created better stability, but this method worked quite well.  The selection of angular stones was limited and I didn't want either of the available colors (white limestone or dark gray traprock).

The pump fits into the reservoir and operates underneath the fountain.  I didn't take pics of that part of the installation, but there are cinder block supports and a grate that goes on top of this open reservoir.  The fountain sits on top and then the grate is concealed by cobblestones.
12.  Of course the kettle was much easier to deal with than the fountain - we just heaved it in there and leveled it before topping off the water.
Once the major design elements were in place, it became a matter of placing the decorative cobbles and plants to achieve the final result!
I wanted a Zen overtone,
but more vibrant and colorful.
Close-up of the basalt column -
the awesome sound of flowing water!
Water trickles down the ribbed sides...
...and disappears into the reservoir beneath it.
Another view from the opposite corner.
This was the most fun DIY project we've ever done, and now nobody wants to go back inside the house.  We'd just like to stay outside and enjoy this!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Precedents public and private

How auspicious for the British royal couple that they were wed today in the very London abbey where I once nursed my little girl!!
Do you see the woman in the large turquoise hat near the lower right corner?  That's where we sat.
Souvenir from our baby book.
We didn't set out with the intention of nursing in that amazing place, but a baby's gotta eat when a baby's gotta eat, and so that's what happened. 

And of all my memories of England, that's definitely my favorite - the old-world embrace of natural maternity.  Whereas so many Americans become uncomfortable or upset at the sight of a nursing mother, Europeans don't even bat an eyelash at that which is such a vital part of the Natural Order of Things.  I've long since stopped nursing, but I still miss the healthier attitudes toward that and other aspects of human sexuality and reproduction.  Long live the Queen and her throne ascendants!!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Room with a chew (or two)

We are hard at work on a major addition to our outdoor room and I will soon have neat-o pics of that.

As we are absorbed in that fun-filled task, there are reminders around us that the universe is continuing to unfold on its own terms, which may not always be the ones we'd hope for, but some of it is running in a definite theme groove here.  For instance, as soon as I saw this scene below, I said to myself, "Uh oh... Sir Lawee the Duke of Arlington is not going to be pleased..."
CHOMP!!!  Raccoon?  Opossum?  I'd guess the omnivorous latter.  But I can't figure out how it managed to get into the yard.  Musta climbed the fence (possums are excellent climbers) because nothing has tunneled underneath.
This is what I get for being so caught up in room-building that I forget to harvest the tomatoes.
And then along analogous lines, there's the issue of our dog, not one iota reformed in her mandibular ways even after her near-death chew-fest fallout:
No kidding - this is not a staged photo.
One of my work gloves landed on the ground and within about three minutes, she had eaten (not just chewed) four of its five fingers, curiously leaving just The Impolite Finger, perhaps as a way of saying "F*ck y'all and f*ck death, too - I'm gonna eat poisonous sagos and everything else I put my mouth to!"
Anyway, with that, I must leave you biting your nails in anticipation of what all the outdoor room fuss might be about.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rock on (literally)!

Have I mentioned that, after 25 years of mostly banging away at a computer for a living, I'd sometimes like to shoot myself from sheer boredom?! 

I'm SICK of this chair. 

I want to go OUTSIDE.

I want to work with my BODY, not just my brain.  Smell the fresh air.  Feel the sun. 

To stave off this despair and madness, I'm continuing to indulge the yard-building hobby, as these scenes from this afternoon attest. 
Big truck, pallets of material, but NOT for the build-house next door to us, for which bricks were previously staged. 
We DID figure we better get our landscape stuff mostly done while the neighborhood is still completely torn up.  Seriously, with all the construction going on, the entire place looks like Beirut on a bad day.  Nobody is going to by offended by our little corner of DIY mess. 
One of those cool little three-wheeler forks that piggyback on the Kenworth for deliveries of just this kind. 
And nothing says AL'S EXERCISE POTENTIAL quite like yet another seven thousand pounds of chopped sandstone and gravel!
Part of this will go into our fountain / waterscape construction, but part will be used for raised bed landscaping. 
Until I run outa rock, at least!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More suburban homesteading scenes

Lawrence is convinced that we must evenly divide the one ripe tomato that we've got so far, even though it's a grape tomato just one inch across.  The plant has about fifty thousand tomatoes on it.  I'm wondering how many will ripen simultaneously so that I can actually make a dish with them.
This plant has so many jalapenos on it that it fell over from the weight of them.
There's a veritable sea of basil out there...
...on the ground and in the basil pot. 
More than we could ever eat.
You can see how dry it is,
here in Texas' worst drought in more than 50 years.
Lantana doesn't mind the drought.
Some nascent sunflowers in a field of onions and garlic.  Not sure if they'll develop in this kind of planting arrangement, but worth a try.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Potayto or potahto?

Potatoes don't grow very well in Houston, but onions do.  As far as I'm concerned, ours have been hanging around long enough, and they have not been paying rent.
When I pulled this one out, Lawrence exclaimed, "We're supposed to wait until the tops fall over [to harvest them]!"

But that rule only applies if we are solely interested in the bulb.  When it comes right down to it, are we supposed to eat the top of the onion, or the bottom of the onion??  White people wait until the tops dry out and fall over, and then eat the bottom.   But our Asian neighbors think we're a little bit bonkers for not eating them right now, as they are. 

And they are probably right.  I suspect we suburbanites have been conditioned to eat the bottom of the onion mostly because it's easier to ship the bottoms from California.  Big Ag has skewed our expectations of onions for their convenience, not ours.  A lot of the nutrition is actually in the top, the part that Asians are generally too shrewd to waste.

So in the face of all this, I decided that we're supposed to eat the whole damned onion.  There's nothing about the voluminous tops that negatively affects cooking in any way - in fact, the tops are actually the most flavorful part!  Here I chopped up that aforementioned squatter as the base for a dish called quinoa primavera (mine differs significantly from the URL, which tends to be very bland - throw some tumeric and multi-spice blends into it if you try it, along with extra vegetables of all types).  Them's good eatin'.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A win and a save

Let's just say that we had more than one reason to celebrate today: one is back from the dead, and the other is back on top.
The CONGRATS balloon is for Miss Cayley, who took a trophy in at the Houston Science & Engineering Fair this weekend, an absolutely amazing accomplishment!

In addition to this, she has been invited to apply for a slot in the Broadcom Masters national competition in Washington DC.
Bright lights, BIG big city...
Attempted art shot of the irridescent stuff
coating the trophy.
The WELCOME HOME balloon is for our dog Nyx, who spent the past three days in the hospital, first in the animal-analog of an intensive care unit (ICU) and then at our regular vet for continued IV and drug treatment. 

Nyx ingested a piece of sago palm root, which none of us knew is often lethal to dogs - and humans - if consumed (the damned dog seizes every opporunity to eat indiscriminantly - we haven't been able to break her of that behavior).  Internet references place the canine mortality rate around 50%.  Our emergency room vet said that, in her experience, the mortality rate is more like 80%.  I had to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that Nyx would likely die even if we expended all the medical effort and corresponding money to save her - heavy stuff!! 

Cayley wanted a cake that was "exuberant" because "Nyx is exuberant".  I myself have been called "irrationally exuberant", but not lately.
Sago causes liver necrosis followed by death.  As of this evening, Nyx's liver is not functioning in normal ranges, but it has improved since the weekend and the vet thinks this is a very optimistic sign that it can recover (the liver is the only mammalian organ that can regenerate).  The vet gave me her personal cell phone number this evening as we were checking out of the hospital.  She said, "I'm giving you this only because I don't believe you're going to need it."
Alert, oriented, clear eyes, but you can see that the rear limbs are not behaving exactly as they should, here being splayed at odd angles.  In addition to causing liver necrosis, there's reportedly an unknown additional toxin in sago that affects limb movement.  However this odd motor control effect is not apparent when Nyx is moving around.  In stride, her coordination appears perfect. 

She still has a catheter inserted in her front leg just in case she has a relapse and needs additional fluids.
Celebratory dinner.  I love Lawrence's face in this photo.  It's the face that says, "My ass has officially been worn out by all this stuff."
Drug regime.  The dog is now officially a junkie. Incidentally, the term "MT" is an old environmental waste management shorthand.  It means "empty".  In this case, take that pill on an MT stomach.
This is sorta sick, but I told her I'd buy her a new fluffy bed if she would agree to live.  So far, we are both holding up our ends of the bargain.  I tried to get the bed in a good color to coordinate with my rock rug, because that's where Nyx spends most of her weekdays hanging out - in my office.  Methinks she likes it.  She is very tired, though. 
For once, I think I've posted more pics and fewer words.  Things are good at the moment.  More later.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Everything (Scientific) is Bigger in Texas

The finalists from among greater Houston's approximately one million (!!) school children assemble today at the George R. Brown Convention Center (aka "the GRB") to compete in the 52nd annual Science & Engineering Fair.
The exterior of this convention center,
which is as distinctive as it is massive.
The GRB covers six city blocks -
the building is about 1,570 feet long
and 400 feet wide!
Buncha buses!! 
Note that this photo-melange represents
a TINY subset of the total. 
Greater Houston has about
thirty independent school districts. 
Not thirty schools - thirty districts!!
Houston ISD,
the seventh-largest in the country,
has over 200,000 students
and a billion-dollar annual budget.
Cy-Fair ISD has about 92,000 students.
Our own ISD (Clear Creek) has 38,000 students.
The Fair is a three-day process.  Yesterday was sign-in day.
Thankfully, there were about fifty people working the sign-in desks, so no bottleneck there.
One view of the display floor, looking northwest.  Along the rear wall of the arena were troubleshooting desks and (yes) souvenir sales!!
View looking southeast from Cayley's display station.
The sign-in and set-up processes were rigorous.  The project board had to be inspected by two independent representatives of the Fair's governing board before we could exit the arena for the night.
Cayley won Clear Creek ISD first-place gold medals in Grade 4 (a wildlife investigation in 2008), Grade 5 (the famous mammoth tooth project in 2009), and Grade 6 (a prophetic pre-Deepwater Horizon oiled bird cleaning experiment in 2010).  However this year, with her fourth District medal win, is the first year she is eligible to compete in a regional fair and according to the international rules, in what is called the "Junior Division".  The whole thing is very complicated, being sponsored by a nonprofit called the Society for Science and the Public, as well as major corporate sponsor Intel.  And it's really heavy stuff: successful children at the high school level go on to compete internationally for over $4 million in prizes!!
"I'd rather be texting, thank you".

She was dressed much more formally for today's competition, but Mom is not allowed to take many photos these days, because that would be
way too uncool.
We are looking upon this year's participation as a feet-wetting experience, rather than as a bona fide competition for Cayley.  We did not build as much value into this year's project as we had done in previous years, and that was partly a deliberate decision (due to other personal considerations) and partly an involuntary decision (the vacant lot upon which the project was conducted was sold before we could fully develop the project, a turn of events that we had determined at the outset to be an acceptable risk).  It was a darned good idea for a project, but that combination of factors led to a resulting data set that we think is really too limited for advanced competition.

The project involved evaluation of different industry-standard methods for controlling sediment pollution from active construction sites, but...
...this is a picture of our former project area today!!
The experimental areas were bulldozed,
but a new family will soon be moving in next door to us!
Anyway, we are infinitely proud of Cayley for making it all the way to this regional competition!!

A few parting shots from the GRB yesterday:
They may be the area's most talented young scientists,
but they're still just kids!!
Attempted art shot inside the GRB.
The eclectic south Houston skyline
looking north from the GRB,
with historic houses backdropped by skyscrapers.