Thursday, August 22, 2013

Razing the Roof

In October 2011, I was facing down the inevitability of another Texas winter. My tropical potted plant collection had grown to epic proportions, and I just couldn't face the idea of trying to squeeze all my plants into the house again. The previous winter plants filled every nook and cranny of my home and made it difficult at times to get to the back door. Yep, I'm not exaggerating. Something had to give.

I had been wanting to build a greenhouse for a long time, but I couldn't find the right plan.  I finally found a greenhouse plan on the Build Easy web site that I really liked, and a contractor who seemed to think he could build it. Here's a sample photo of what the Build Easy greenhouse plan looks like when constructed. 

The plan on the internet was for an 8 X 12 structure, but I needed something more in the 16 X 24 size.  The contractor extrapolated out the plan to the larger size and that's where everything took a wrong turn.  I should have hired an architect or engineer to create a new plan, but I did not. Hind sight is 20/20.

The greenhouse was completed in November 2011 just in time for the cold weather to arrive. Here's my blog about the completion: Greenhouse Build - Week Four.  I was pretty darn happy the day that project was completed, but that happiness was short-lived.

I had problems with the greenhouse immediately.  The clerestory windows did not come close to sealing shut. It soon became obvious that heating the greenhouse would be a huge challenge with these gaping holes.  As an emergency stop gap measure, we bought scads of foam air conditioning insulation and filled the cracks as best we could. As luck would have it, we had a very mild winter.

I didn't have the funds to pay someone to rebuild the greenhouse clerestory windows, so the next winter I decided to press my luck and hope for warm weather.  The winter wasn't too bad, and thank goodness, because things went from bad to worse.

By late winter 2013, the roof had started visibly sagging which prevented the middle clerestory window from closing at all.  The situation was pretty dire when I chanced to meet a friend of my husband's. This friend is very knowledgeable in the field of engineering, so I asked him if he could tell me what was going wrong with the greenhouse.  Ah, where to start...

There were 2 main problems: failure to properly size and install the roof beans, and failure to properly execute the installation of the windows in accordance with the original plan.

Since the building is larger than the original plan, the roof needed 2 X 6's instead of 2 X 4's, but the problem was compounded by the fact that the builder did not make proper use of the 2 X 4's.  See how all the beams have been shaved down to a little point.  With all the 2 X 4's standing on tippy toe, the roof supports are weakened. He might as well have used 2 X 2's.

After explaining all this to me, my husband's engineering friend offered to help us fix the greenhouse.  I was just hoping for a contractor referral, so this offer to help solve my problems thrilled me to no end.  My wonderful husband and his talented friend were going to fix my greenhouse for me. YAY! MY HEROES!

With construction underway, you can still see the visible sag of the roof.  Later they will use a jack to lift the roof back into position.

The windows will be reconstructed to retract flat against the building instead of stopping when they hit the roof.  In order to do this, the front roof will be lowered slightly and rebuilt with the 2 X 6's. Watching all this occur is pretty amazing.

Fortunately, I'm now in good hands.  I have every confidence that my greenhouse will be in tip top shape very soon.  It might not seem like it in August, but another winter will be here before you know it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Foliage of Croton

One of the things I love about living in Central Texas is the ability to grow houseplants outside for 8 months of the year. Given a little shade and regular water many houseplants thrive in our heat and humidity.  One of those houseplants is the humble and ubiquitous croton.

I originally purchased my crotons in spring 2011 for less than $5 a plant.  I intended to grow them as annuals, but they have overwintered nicely and are still going strong. They grow very quickly while enjoying the heat of a Texas summer. Here they are after growing for just one growing season.

Fast forward to spring 2013.  After a luxurious winter in the greenhouse, the crotons bask in the early morning light.  

These plants can take an amazing amount of sun for a houseplant. I have seen these plants displayed at big stores in way more sun then I give them at home.  I keep mine outside from April through November and then store them in the greenhouse for the winter at a night time temperature of about 40 degrees.  

If you're looking for brilliant patterns combined with greens, yellows, pinks and reds, then you'll love the easy going and beautiful croton.

For more great foliage ideas, check with Pam at Digging where you will find her foliage followup blog on Berkley Sedge.  Check her comments section for links to other interesting blogs about foliage.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall

The impetus for building the wall was set in motion by a well-meaning home builder who planted coastal Bermuda grass.  When we moved into our house in 1992, the Bermuda was growing happily. 

Slowly we started eliminating the Bermuda in the front garden. Our goal was to replace it with a woodland themed garden filled with meandering paths and the sound of water.  When the Bermuda was under control in the front, our attention turned to the back garden where the Bermuda grew the thickest. 

Since we are on a septic system, we decided the one area we would allow the grass to grow was over the septic field. This grass doesn't get watered or fertilized. It gets mowed only occasionally, and for the most part requires little effort.

To separate the grass from the rest of garden we installed a dry stack wall.  This worked pretty well for many years. The Bermuda occasionally made incursions through the wall into the neighboring garden bed, but we just weeded it from time to time. 

As the years passed, I eventually started adding plants to the beds adjacent to the Bermuda grass. The new planting beds required irrigation and the Bermuda grass was all too happy to take advantage of that extra moisture. Our little dry stack wall was no longer capable of holding back those vigorous Bermuda runners.  

The picture below was taken in fall 2012. The dry stack wall has been removed, and we are beginning to make our plans and preparations for operation "Stop the Bermuda Grass".

In February 2013, we broke ground and started building the footing for the wall.  The trench was 87 feet long and 4-6 inches deep. After the trench was dug, bender board was used to form the walls.

In areas where the ground sloped away more sharply, gravel was added to save on concrete.

When the concrete was poured, the results reminded me of a great gray snake slinking through the grass.  The rebar posts sticking out of the concrete are tied in to steel mesh. This will give the wall more strength later when the cinder blocks are added.

The cinder blocks will form the center of wall.  Decorative bricks will be added to hide the cinder blocks later. We decided to use the same manufactured paver bricks that we used during our fire pit project.  Repeating materials helps unify a space.  At least that's what the garden design books say.

After the brick paver veneer was glued into place, we realized we had a little problem. The pavers were coming up a little too high, which was causing a gap under the cap stones. We'll have to deal with that problem later.  

With all this work going on there's never much time to mow, but looky here. The wall is already stopping the Bermuda. Yay!

So here's the solution to our earlier dilemma. We used cement backer board to fill the space at the top of the wall. Then, thin mortar was added to level everything out.

Ta da! Perfection! The top of the wall is now smooth and level. 

This small section of the wall is almost done.  The cap stone will be added later when the mortar is dry. I'm very excited to see the finished product.

Another brick in the wall and another brick closer to completion. I'll keep you updated on our progress.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Hopper Blues

I've got the blues
the hopper blues

Grasshoppers are giving me the blues. These hungry hoppers are munching everything in sight turning my beautiful plants into Swiss cheese.

Look at my poor Hawaiin Ti.  In the spring, this plant was my pride and joy.  It was beautiful.

Now, the grasshopper damage has left it in tatters.  Darned hoppers!

Grasshoppers are equal opportunity plant eaters. Few plants in the garden escape their notice. Whether it's coneflower, meadow sage, coleus, or shrimp plant, the leaf holes are apparent throughout my garden.

Here's one of the culprits.  In the nymph stage, also called an instar, they are actually pretty cute as far as bugs go.  They molt five times from first instar to adult.  Repeatedly shedding your skin, takes a lot of energy, so it's no wonder these little guys hit the ground eating. They start munching shortly after hatching and just keep on going.

Unfortunately, many of them grow into adults with wings.  My chickens find it quite difficult to catch these flyers in their winged state. Still, the girls try their darnedest. A tasty hopper is hard to beat. 

I know from past experience, it's best not to let grasshoppers get to the adult flying stage. They'll just go on to lay more eggs and the whole problem will replay again next year.

At first site of grasshopper nymphs, I  treat with Nosema locustae. Sold as Nolo Bait or Semaspore, I've had very good success with this biological bait. Because the bait is a naturally occurring protozoan that only affects grasshoppers and crickets, it is safe for people, pets and the environment.  

Shown below in the refrigerator, Semaspore Bait will keep longer if kept cool.  Because it's a living biological agent, it has a short shelf life.  Plan to use it by the expiration date, which is stamped on the container.

If you decide to treat with Nosema locustae, do your homework. This bait is slow acting, so don't expect results overnight.  Once the grasshoppers eat the bait, their munching slows down, but it can take weeks to get control.

If grasshoppers are giving you the blues, turn that frown upside down and give grasshopper baits a try.