Saturday, January 21, 2012

Garden mirrors from start to finish

Following up on our "start to finish" series that includes stock tank gardens from start to finish, watergarden from start to finish, rainwater harvesting from start to finish, and ollas from start to finish, we now have garden mirrors from start to finish.
Right off the bat, I must warn you: this was a tougher project than the others we tackled.  You've heard the expression "go big or go home"?  Well, I wanted to go big, and what I didn't count on at the outset was the amount of work it would take.


Let me first explain what garden mirrors even are and why they are used.  Garden mirrors have not yet gotten very popular in America for a couple of reasons:
  • Most "new world" folks already have what outdoor mirrors are intended to provide an illusion of:  SPACE.  Mirrors tend to be more popular in Europe where, even if folks are wealthy, they often do not have much land around their homesteads.  Therefore, the clever use of mirrors can add extra dimensions to small backyards (which they tend to call "gardens").
  • It takes a relatively large mirror to do justice to even a small backyard space, and large mirrors are both expensive and difficult to install.  
Where people do incorporate mirrors into their landscaping however, the effect can range from pleasing to breathtaking:

While these definitely add to the landscape, I find them a little underwhelming because of their relatively small size.
From MoZone The Blog.

Now I'm beginning to get enchanted.
From, although that source may have obtained the photo elsewhere (they posted what appears to be one of MoZone's without attribution).

Even more enchanting. 

Mirrors.  I would not have attempted this project except for one stroke of good fortune: I found a used pair of enormous sheet mirrors at a church yard sale and bought them both for $40.00. If the same pair of mirrors had been purchased new at retail prices, they would have cost around $600.00, which would have made this project out of the question by virtue of unreasonable expense.   If you are considering a similar project for yourself, keep this in mind: wall-sized sheet mirrors are becoming less popular as designer trends dictate fancier framed mirrors in residential bathrooms.  For this reason, many suburbanites are de-installing their large builder-grade sheet mirrors when they remodel. If you can locate one or more of those secondhand, you might get them at giveaway prices.

Framing materials.  All of the framing materials came from a big box hardware store and are pretty simple (general inventory for two separate mirrors):
  • 4x4 inch pressure-treated posts (four 10-footers and four 6-footers)
  • three-quarter inch pressure-treated plywood (two 4 x 8 sheets)
  • exterior oil based paint (1 gallon)
  • common hardware (bolts)
  • aluminum mirror mounting track (4 pieces)
  • ready mix concrete for mounting the finished framed mirrors in the ground (about five 50-pound bags).
  • A circular saw with a good sharp blade suitable for cutting plywood and pressure-treated lumber.  (If you have more sophisticated equipment such as a table saw, your life would likely be easier with this project, but all we had on hand was a circular saw). 
  • Measuring tape.
  • Something to use to support lumber and the project as it is being constructed (we used about a half dozen cinderblocks)
  • A wood rasp or file
  • Post hole digger
  • Bottle jack
  • A great deal of construction-related brain power
Labor.  At least two large strong people would be needed to accomplish anything remotely resembling this project.  While the two of us were sufficient to actually build the mirrors, it was not sufficient to have just myself (130-pound unusually strong female) and my husband when it came time to set the framed mirrors in the ground; we needed a second muscular male to assist with that.


Now, this is the section where, if this were any other "start to finish" blog post from us, I would go through the construction in painstaking step-by-step detail.  In this case, however, I'm going to summarize general procedures, ideas, and limitations for you to keep in mind if you do your own project.  There are many different ways to put mirrors into a landscape, every landscape is different, and this is only one approach represented below.

Mirror frame must be both flat and rigid. This was by far the biggest challenge we faced in designing this project.  I managed to drag two enormous but cheap mirrors home from a yard sale, but at that point, we almost became stymied by the obvious technical challenge: how the heck were we going to mount these things in an outdoor environment in a way that both supported their considerable weight, would stand up to the wind (in our area, sometimes hurricane-force), AND would keep them from flexing, which would have led to breakage?!  And how were we going to keep that frame from deteriorating when exposed to considerable fluctuations in temperature and humidity?  And accomplish all of these goals at reasonable cost?  Yikes!!!

After great debate,we settled upon pressure-treated plywood as the backing.
A minivan is a wonderful thing.  It can swallow 4 x 8 sheets of plywood without even belching. I have an entire series of photographs depicting all of the remarkable things that my van has hauled over the years.
 The only trouble with this plywood was that it was very green and it had a very high moisture content. In order to get it as flat as possible and as stable as possible, I had to lay it out to dry on the garage floor in a process that took approximately three weeks!!!!!

Every time one side would begin to get a little bit dry, it would warp. I would then flip it over to re-flatten it, and let the other side dry. As I was doing this, I weighed down the curling edges using cinderblocks and my husband's set of free weights. This whole process was a pain in the lower anatomy, to be sure.
Once the plywood was as dry as I figured it was ever going to get, we cut each piece down to size, making them about 6 inches larger than each mirror. 

These cut-down pieces then received multiple coats of the outdoor oil-based paint.

Then it was time to construct the frames to hold the backing.  This is where my husband's engineering skills came in handy.  Basically we had to cut the frame posts so that they could notch into one another in the same plane...

.. but we also had to cut a groove around the entire frame perimeter into which the plywood could then be inserted so that it would not warp in the future (and crack the mirrors in the process). We considered stabilizing the plywood using other rigid means such as galvanized metal brackets, but that seemed too complicated.  The channel-inset solution was my ever-brilliant husband's idea. 

This pic shows The Engineer working on the top piece of the frame.  The plywood has alread been fitted into the inset channel in the frame piece to photo right.  The come-along straps were used to ensure that the plywood was all the way into the channels, and also to hold the frame tight while it was being bolted together.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, this was not an easy task, and it wasn't the safest project we ever did either.  If you do anything like this, proceed carefully after giving each stage in your process some good contemplation. 

This is not a fast project, either.  We worked on it on and off for a couple of weeks (for two mirrors). 
Once we got the frame bolted together and lowered into the holes we dug, we had to somehow hold it in place while the concrete was poured into the holes around the legs and allowed to harden. We used a floor jack and some cinderblocks to accomplish that. We also framed up the concrete "feet" using loose bricks, which we later came to regret because it was difficult to remove the bricks from the hardened concrete. On our second garden mirror, we used thin plastic forms instead of bricks because they were easier to remove afterward. 
Now for a bit of close-up finish detail:
Here's a close-up of the joinery in the lower right-hand corner of the mirror. It takes considerable construction skill to get these joints to match up perfectly.
We used aluminum mirror mounting track to hold the mirror sheet onto the plywood backing on both its top and its bottom. We sealed the top with clear silicone.  You have to remember that this kind of sheet mirror is not designed to frequently get wet. Most of the Internet resources I found (what few there were) recommended sealing glass mirrors to some kind of a waterproof backing if they are going to be placed outdoors. Otherwise, the mirroring might delaminate (peel off). 
We also silicone'd down each side...
...but we left the bottom without silicone. We figured there was no way to get a perfect seal all the way around the mirror - it was bound to leak a bit somewhere. Therefore, we left the bottom open so that if any water did get between the mirror and its plywood backing, it would have a place to drain out. Time will tell whether this approach is sufficient to prevent significant deterioration of the mirror. 
And now for the semi-finished product, and I do mean "semi" because as I write this, it's the month of January, which means we are in dormancy as far as most plants are concerned:
View of the larger of the two mirrors shortly after installation. Ultimately, I want to run vines up the fence and across the mirror frame so that it gets partially covered and therefore looks a little less stark. In this rather barren configuration, the combination of mirror plus stock tank is faintly reminiscent of a commode (it actually looks LESS like a commode when viewed in 3-D because, between the mirror and the tank, there's a gap large enough to walk through). 
Since the initial installation was completed, we've seen some softening with additional vegetation growing, and I have also discovered an unexpected bonus: 
Tank as of today.  That's broccoli in the rear, and onions in the front. The mirror actually reflects additional sunlight to the plants in the tank, resulting in more robust growth than I usually see.
Smaller mirror with smaller stock tank (this one contains mostly herbs plus one orphaned broccoli at the moment).  Again, in order to complete the picture, additional softening from vegetation is needed. In this case, it will be a southern wax myrtle that sort of cascades over the top of the mirror to soften the edges.  That is partially visible to photo left, but still has some growing to do.
I realize that, stylistically these things would not be to everyone's taste. Aside from wanting garden mirrors, the unusual design we chose reflected a bit of nostalgia on my part: the frames remind me of the Parks Canada signs which have been a part of fond memories throughout my entire life:
Cayley and her grandfather in Nova Scotia,
summer 2011.
So there you have it, and I will post additional pictures as these installations begin to approach their full aesthetic potential.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

First cauliflower: In honor of a cousin

Did you know that many cauliflower variants are naturally purple, and that growers blanche them (keep the heads white) by tying the leaves over the top so that no sunlight can reach down to activate the antioxidant that prompts the color to emerge?  

Harvested today this BIG sucker from our quasi-world-famous stock tank gardens.
I always do a comemmorative blog post every time a new vegetable species is sacrificed for the table.
BTW, purple-plus-green is my favorite color combination. This is pretty obvious from the way I've structured this blog.
Underside.  This doesn't even look like something humans should eat.  It looks like brain coral or something.
Here's something weird:  this is an organic F1 hybrid, which also goes by the name of "grafitti cauliflower", presumably because it's the color of some acid-inspired spray paint.  But when I went to Google "F1 cauliflower", this is the first image I retrieved:

Few people realize just how rare that name is in our culture, yet how much it means to Cayley's family personally. 
Anyway, here's my recommendation for cooking home-grown cauli, at least, in those instances where it is not turned into aloo gobi:
Toss chopped florets with virgin olive oil, minced garlic, and the finest-quality Reggiano cheese in proportions to your taste.  Bake about 30 minutes.  It's simple but fantastic!!!!!

Cinder block garden design

For some time now, I have been enamored with cinder block gardens, which because of the small soil pocket sizes they present, are generally are used for cacti and succulent collections, as demonstrated by the following:

Despite the fact that these things are one of the hottest DIY garden trends right now, you can tell by looking at the current examples that many are failing to achieve their creative potential.  Moscato took the extra step and made her garden turn the fence corner (good call), but it feels like it lacks a bit of cohesion.  Penick's is my favorite, is absolutely appropriate for her restricted space, and is unique in being double-sided, but it's still not satisfyingly substantial relative to the balance of her garden creations (and as far as I'm concerned, she's one of the most accomplished landscape designers anywhere). 

For this reason, I decided to make my own cinder block garden into a major planning event, measure-twice-cut-once style.  Clearly, from the examples in DIY-ville as of today, more of the effort needs to go into the planning rather than the execution stage for this kind of project.

In my case, I have a wasted yard corner tucked behind one of my larger stock tank gardens.

It looks like dung right now because of the January seasonal die-back and also because I haven't tamed the current crop of stock tank vegetables, which have obviously all but exhausted the available nitrogen in their soils.  And yes, I let that broccoli to the left bolt on purpose.  The bees love it. 
Right now, the area contains nothing but dead grass and miscellaneous junk plus a metal storage rack that's holding up all the starts I bought for the cinder block garden that is to be:
Please find us a nice permanent home really, really soon...
Much of the whizz-bang-zowie we see in architecture these days revolves around 3-D computer representations.  But guess what??  Cinder block gardens don't require that kind of high-dollar design investment, because we have a wonderful and cheap construction analog already in our houses:  LEGO!!!!

Seriously - what's more fun here - the fact that I will eventually have exactly the cinder block garden that I want and that my available space is calling for, or the fact that I get to play with LEGO while designing it?!
Oblique view of one of my trial models. 
This model is to relative scale in all three dimensions: each 8" x 16" cinder block is represented by a 2x4 lego brick. 
The big blue thing in the foreground represents my existing stock tank garden, or "tub garden" as some country folks prefer to call it.  The brown thing at photo right is the existing mulch bed with Italian cypress in it (we chose tall skinny trees so that they would not shade the stock tank gardens). 
Close-up of the central portion.  Along with having all the individual succulent pockets in the cinder blocks, I also want to have at least one larger cinder-block planter at the center, to anchor the assembly.  That's what I have found to be missing in most of the DIY examples on the internet - a focal point to the focal point, something to give it more substance in the third dimension. 
Aerial view of the same design.  Very important that I get this design right the first time because I have so little space to work with.
General impression of how it would look in situ
I'm spatially off kilter just a bit with this photo. 
You can see my model cypress tree lining up with the actual tree in photo right, but the cinder blocks will not come so far as to impinge on the raised bed to the left.  If I had rotated my position a bit to the right, it would look more accurate, but I was just trying to get a general rough feeling by taking this photo.
Anyway, I'm not yet sure that this will be the design I finalize - the great thing with LEGO is that any number of possibilities can be fully investigated in a scale model, and I'm not done tinkering yet.  And the other great thing is that, once I finalize it, the business of buying the blocks will be simple: just count the LEGOs I consumed in making the model.  And the business of assembling the blocks will be similarly simple:  just follow the 3-D map.