29 July, 2009

Pepper Spray for the Yard, Asiatic Lilies, and Our Mini Fence is Complete (Almost)

Perhaps I am getting a tad bit obsessive about the whole thing. In my spare moments, I find myself Googling search terms like "homemade dog deterrent" or "organic doggie no." I stare out the window, ready to catch neighbors in the act of letting their dogs use our flowerbed as a toilet. At three o'clock this morning you would have found me in the yard, sprinkling a mixture of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper along perimeter, because I read on some gardening forum that it was guaranteed to keep dogs out. It made my eyes water, I'm sure it would tickle Fido's nose, too.

It's all meant to act as backup for the mini wrought iron fence I finished putting up. Please note that I took all pictures at a slight angle so you can't see that the fence is a bit crooked. I'll be straightening that out shortly. Here it is from the sidewalk (note the absolutely useless No Dogs sign):

And from within the yard:

I know, I know, I really need to cut the grass. Somebody last year, I won't say who, thought a push mower was the way to go. It's actually a pain to use, and won't even cut through the wheat grass or crab grass. So I've upgraded to an electric mower. I just need to get it assembled. And we haven't had any real rain in weeks, so everything is crunchy. So it's not looking its best right now.

A close up from within:

The purple shrubs are Diablo Ninebarks. They've more than doubled in size since I planted them last fall, and will get up to eight or nine feet.

Looking out toward the corner, at the river birth we planted last summer. To the left is a Centerglow Ninebark I planted a month or so ago.

In the distance, you can see the tacky black plastic I'm using on the parkway corner to kill weeds and grass. Not sure what I'm planting out there yet, maybe some more of these:

Oopsy, I forgot to rotate that photo. How about this:

The Asiatic Lilies are pretty much maintenance free, and we've had blooms going on for over a month now. It the dogs get to them, though, they're goners.

So yeah, I admit it. I'm obsessed with keeping roaming critters from destroying our investment. And even though I used the pepper combo early this morning, for good measure I just a few moments ago sprinkled the perimeter with a commerical doggie no product.

I'll let y'all know how it goes. The problem isn't the dogs, it's the people attached to the other end of the leash.

24 July, 2009

The "Leave It, Leave It" House

The day lilies I planted in the back yard this year look like this. Lovely, no?

The ones in the front yard, close to the side walk, not so lovely:

That is the direct result of being urinated on ever single day, several times a day, by passing dogs. In addition to several clumps of flowers, we lost three bushes on this same corner.

I really don't understand some dog owners. I mean, what makes them think it's acceptable to let their dogs stomp all over your yard and pee on the flowers? It's hard enough trying to keep anything growing under the parkway trees, and I'm almost ready to give up on those hostas. But what drives me crazy, what really makes me want to throttle people, is when they let their dogs wander all over our actual lawn and foundation gardens. Nobody needs to let their dog out on a fifteen foot retractable lead. I looked out the window of my basement office the other day, just in time to see a little white dog peeing on a flower next to my window. Yup, it had to wind it's way between some bushes, across a small grassy bit, to pee on the flowers in the foundation bed.

Some neighbors have the utmost respect for gardens; when they approach a house with landscaping they reel their dog in, make it heel, and walk by without letting the dog trample anything. One woman laughingly calls our place the "Leave It, Leave It House," because she's trained her dog to leave all the beds alone. When they approach, he automatically walks beside her. So a special thanks to the Leave It, Leave It woman and others like her.

As for the others, nothing seems to get through to them. Not polite requests, not yelling out the window. Nothing. I even caught a guy letting his dog pee on the "no dogs" sign in one of the flowerbeds.

And so we're trying a new strategy of setting up a low fence around the flower bed I'm currently working on. I've never been overly fond of such things, but I am tired of buying new plants all the time.

Remember the eye-sore I told you about a few days ago?

I raked up the rest of the grass and tried to even out the soil. Either the sidewalk had sunk over the years, or dirt built up, because pulling up the grass showed that the top of our lawn was--I'm not kidding--nearly five inches above the sidewalk.

The wrought iron fence I'm putting up is about 9 inches high, and very sturdy. We bought 55 feet or so of it, and I'll get the rest of it up tomorrow, going down the length in front of the purple Diablo Ninebark bushes. I decided to take it in a bit, rather than have it against the sidewalk. We get massive amounts of snow in winter, and I didn't want to be striking it with the shovel.

I would like to plant some kind of ground cover between this little fence and the sidewalk. Something thick and spreading and highly resistant to dog urine and trampling. On my next trip to the nursery I'll ask them for advice, but if anybody has a suggestion, I'd appreciate it. I was thinking stonecrop or something; just need to find out if it's pee-proof.

Joyful Celebration

...what a great way to start a marriage.

20 July, 2009

Garden Update: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Our white datura are beginning to blossom. We grew these from seed started back in Spring. I have about a dozen plants scattered throughout the yard and the ones in the sunniest location (on the south west corner of the house) are doing the best. Each plant has between six and eight buds.

And the white cone flowers in the moon garden are gorgeous. I love them so much that I just asked a neighbor down the street--a total stranger--if I can have some of her purple cone flowers when she divides them; they're completely taking over her corner flower bed and are choking out everything else. Later, I realized I must have looked a tad crazy, accosting her in her front yard and asking if she'll let me dig in her garden. But she did say yes. It's one way to meet my neighbors, I guess.

This picture I just took a few minutes ago, when I brought Maggie outside for "last call." I know it's dark, and a bit fuzzy, but this is what greets me when I step outside at night. It's one of my favorite stretches. The day lilies are an almost-neon shade of yellow.


I killed the grass on the west side of the house about a month and a half ago to prep for a massive flower bed and shrub border. Although I swore I was not going to use any chemicals on the lawn--organic all the way, baby!--the crabgrass and other weeds were so bad here, with such deep root systems, that I bought a bottle of Roundup Grass and Weed Kill and sprayed the area down. It didn't take much, and within three weeks it was all dry and crusty. But the grass doesn't pull out as easily as I thought it would, and I've been meaning to borrow my cousin's cultivator the next time I see him. But, you know, something else always comes up. I had to wait for a wind-free day and spray very close to the surface of the lawn, so I wouldn't get any overspray on the ninebark bushes or the river birch.


This is the result. My poor neighbors have had to look at this for weeks, and I've heard more than a few snide comments wafting in through the windows. (See how close the house is to the sidewalk? Do they not think I will hear them?) Several of the ones I've encountered outside ask, "What happened to your grass?" I thought the straight lines looked deliberate, but two or three thought it was a disease or something that attacked the lawn. Weird.

Anyway, this week I'll be doing something about the eyesore.

In case you're wondering, as I was, just what Roundup is, how it works, and how evil I was for using it, here's a little info I found out at How Stuff Works:

Glyphosphate-based herbicides all work on the same biochemical principle -- they inhibit a specific enzyme [EPSP synthase] that plants need in order to grow...Without that enzyme, plants are unable to produce other proteins essential to growth, so they yellow and die over the course of several days or weeks. A majority of plants use this same enzyme, so almost all plants succumb to Roundup...In the same way that many antibiotics gum up enzyme production to kill bacteria, glyphosphate gums up enzymes in plants to kill them...The question of safety is a hard one to answer because there is a lot of polarized and conflicting information. Here are a few things we can probably say with some certainty:
  • Given the amount of glyphosphate sprayed on the planet every day, it is probably safe to say that glyphosphate is not violently toxic to people or animals. People do not have the same enzymes in their cells that plants do, just like human cells and bacteria differ enough that antibiotics kill bacteria cells but not human cells.

  • On the other hand, most people react badly to glyphosphate (and other chemicals mixed with it) when ingested or applied to the skin, so you want to avoid any contact with the chemical.

  • Roundup will kill almost any plant, including aquatic plants, so you want to be sure to avoid spray drift onto other plants or into water. Any pesticide should be applied carefully.

14 July, 2009

Source for Rocks?

I'm inspired by Jennifer at Tiny Old House to try some raised flower beds. Follow the link and check hers out. (Also check out her 1964 Cardinal 10-foot trailer that I'm coveting. Love it!) Does anyone in the North Shore/Chicago area know of a good source for free or cheap landscaping rocks?

13 July, 2009

Foundations for a Moon Garden

As Bill, one of my college roommates, said recently, gardening is about killing plants as much as it is about growing them. It was with some degree of sadness that we took out these overgrown forsythia earlier this year.

We had thought of taking a master gardening friend's suggestion, and hacking them to ground level to start fresh. Unfortunately, there were so many weed trees growing through them, that we eventually agreed we'd never be able to completely kill those and leave the forsythia. It's hard to see the weed trees growing in here, because they haven't leafed out in these pictures, but we had rogue maples and elms completely twisted through the forsythia.

With the removal of those trees (which would be just off the left edge of this next picture), we were left with nothing growing on this side of the house. On a corner lot, we felt very, very exposed.

And so we decided to plant a moon garden. A moon garden is simply a flower bed that primarily has white flowers, particularly night-blooming ones like moonflowers, datura (angel trumpets), and the like, as well as shrubs with light-colored foliage--think white and green hostas, dappled willows, azaleas with pale-green leaves. Anything that would be illuminated by the light of the moon at night, giving the garden a special glow.

Here is where the forsythia and weed trees once stood. I built a bit of a berm, that rises about eight inches above the rest of the yard. Next year, I plan on placing trellises on the outer edge and growing moonflowers on them. (That's our neighbor's bed of hostas in the back. The trellis will block this view, much as I like our neighbors and their garden, and give the moon garden more of an intimate feel.) Because we have a new saw, I will be building the trellises myself.

For now, there is a white hibiscus in the center, two azaleas, a trio of astilbles (peach and light pink), and two white something-or-others whose name escapes me at the moment. Everything is still quite small, of course, because we're trying to do this as cheaply as possible. (Home Depot started clearancing 1-gallon perennials this week.)

Here's a long view of it.

The smoke tree was a coup. I came across a sign at Home Depot that said "ALL fruit, flowering, and shade trees 50% off (with exception of Japanese maples and evergreens)." Even though they didn't intend to include the smoke trees, it does in fact have flowers (the tag says so), so I asked for and got the discount. Score! Only $25.

Here's a before for the rest of the moon garden (with the crappy old windows we replaced last fall):

And how it's coming along:

Yup, that's a lot of work for one season. Here's the view from the corner of the house:

The bulging bit is mostly filled with freebie hostas we received from friends and family, but we have many bulbs coming up that should flower soon, as well as daturas, daisies, and white echinachias. And in the center, because I missed them, there is a forsythia that we picked up after Home Depot clearanced them. We'll still have our yellow flowers in the spring, before the rest of the garden wakes up.

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

12 July, 2009

Welcome to the World Above, Little Cicada

While watering the newly planted delphiniums, I came across this little guy, waiting for his wings to dry before he can take off and explore the yard. He's the first of this year's brood I've spotted. Soon the air will be filled with their summer song.

We know that you are royally blest
Cicada when, among the tree-tops,
You sip some dew and sing your song;
For every single thing is yours
That you survey among the fields
And all the things the woods produce.
The farmers' constant company,
You damage nothing that is theirs;
Esteemed you are by every human
As the summer's sweet-voiced prophet.
The Muses love you, and Apollo too,
Who's gifted you with high pitched song.
Old age does nothing that can wear you,
Earth's sage and song-enamored son;
You suffer not, being flesh-and-blood-less--
A god-like creature, virtually.

Click the pictures to get a close-up view.

Poem Source: Cicadas in Ancient Greece.

Happiness Is...

...a new Makita LXT406 18-Volt LXT Lithium-Ion Cordless 4-Piece Combo Kit.

And while Ted and I are thrilled that the rebate for the set included a fifth tool, there are others in the house who might say the best part of the deal is the carrying bag it all comes in.

09 July, 2009

What Happens When You Don't Use the Right Mortar

It's a real problem in Chicago. Very few contractors who do masonry work on old buildings use the right kind of mortar for the job. Whenever you need to repoint or replace the mortar on your historic brick building, you should have a sample of the original mortar analyzed so that you can create a mortar with the same components. If you don't, all sorts of horrors can happen.

When we tore down the gypsum ceiling boards in our basement last summer, we exposed about 85 years of efflorescence on the interior wall. When moisture travels through the brick, it carries water soluble salts along with it, which end up evaporating on the surface. Ours wasn't too bad, a bit thicker in some spots than others, but overall probably acceptable for such a length of time. I used a shop vac to clean up most of it, and our basement walls looked like this:

Well, after a long winter and an even longer, damp spring, there seems to be a fair amount of efflorescence collecting in a single spot above one of the front windows.

That's a lot to collect in less than a year. Most of our basement after 85 years didn't have this much. So we went around to the front of the house to take a look at what was going on. What you're looking at here is some really cheap patch work done on the exact opposite side of this wall; we found tubes of Quikrete in the basement, and we think this is what the previous owner used when they said The Box House had been recently tuckpointed.

Whatever they used, the result is that the building is not breathing properly in this spot. The bricks are not able to expand and contract as they're supposed to against the rigid mortar, and moisture is somehow being forced through the brick.

There are earlier repairs to the brick as well; we're not sure when these were done--our guess is maybe 40 years ago when the last owner bought the place--but it looks like a better attempt was made to mach the mortar to the original at that time. At any rate, there are no problems to the brick where these earlier repairs were made. However, it is beginning to crack in certain spots--nowhere near as much as the most recent mortar repairs are cracking--but enough that we'll have to address it soon.

But here's the real problem, and thank goodness it's on the garage and not the main house.

On this entire corner, the PO used Quikrete or some kind of rigid cement to patch the mortar. The mortar does not move at all. So as the bricks here are expanding and contracting, they are literally crumbling against the mortar. If we let it go long enough, we'll have this web of mortar and no bricks. We're going to attempt, very soon, to repair and remortar this ourselves as a way to practice for the bigger task of repointing the house.

Most masonry contractors, when they tell you they can match the mortar, mean they'll match the color. Period. By not using the proper materials, or trying to work with a buildings original materials, such contractors are literally destroying the face of the city. Ever since we learned about the importance of the right mortar at a recent masonry workshop, we've noticed building after building across Chicago crumbling away. It's very sad.

Do you know what's also sad? The fact that the dang squirrels cannot wait until September for our neighbors apples to ripen; instead, they've been leaving half-eaten apples all around our yard. They usually take a bite or two, toss it over their shoulders, and grab another one.

Messy little buggers.

06 July, 2009

One Man's Trash is Another Person's Garden Ornaments

I've been doing a little bit of alley shopping this last week or so, and picked up a few "treasures" for the yard.

I found an old end table that is, admittedly, not worthy of repurposing for use inside the house.

But cleaned, primed, and painted the exact same green as our plastic lawn chairs (we have about six of them floating about), it makes a neat little accent table to rest your cocktail on. I used spray paint suited for outdoor wood, but even if this only lasts a year or so, it's worth it. I just hope the red-green combo doesn't look too Christmas-y.

I thought this was super cute, a child's rocking chair. Makes a nifty plant stand.

Okay, the bench in this picture wasn't found in the alley; it came from Mom's other house and we were going to throw it away because it's kinda wonky, but I nabbed it as an accent piece for one side of the house facing the street. The corner garden here is still a work-in-progress, but you should have seen it last May. There was nothing growing here. With the exception of the Japanese maple at the far left, the plants here are mostly hand me downs from my godmother's garden, grown from seed, or perennials that were divided from the back yard. An almost-free garden.

If I do decide to prime and paint the bench, what color should I go with?

Finally, there's this. The sun was two minutes away from setting, so it's not all sparkly like I wanted it to be for the picture, but I'm so excited about it. I had spotted similar bird baths at an art fair last week, made from old glass.

The clear glass platter and bowl were left behind by the previous owners. The amber goblet is one I picked up a few years ago. The whole thing stands about a foot and a half high, and I can add to it later, I suppose. I was using the bowl as an outdoor water dish for our dog Maggie, and the birds were already bathing in it, so they should love this. Poor Maggie gets a plain blue glass bowl now.

01 July, 2009

So, I Wrote a Book on Bagpipes...

Long, long ago, when I was a bright-eyed young co-ed at the University of Iowa, I played bagpipes with the Scottish Highlanders and performed various Highland dances with another group in Iowa City. I wasn't a great piper or dancer, but it was a lot fun, and the band got to do a fair bit of traveling.

I was studying English literature at the time, with a heavy class load in Medieval Studies and Folklore. And while at the library doing research for a paper on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I let myself get distracted, as often happened, by the folklore and mythology section. On a whim, I began to search through the Celtic collections for any folktales that might relate to pipers. To my surprise, there were many, and not just in the Celtic texts. There were bagpipe-related folktales from Germany, and Poland, and several other European countries. I collected all those tales, tucked them away, and after graduation, when I wondered just what the heck I was going to do with an English degree, I assembled all the tales in a single volume.

That book's long been out of print, but this last year, as a way to de-stress from the stress of working on The Box House, I dusted off the old manuscript with the thought of revamping the collection. I ditched the tales I now thought were so-so, found a bunch more worthy of inclusion, and more or less came up with a collection that's more than twice as big as the original. So I present to y'all, in a moment of blatant self-promotion, The Piper Came to Our Town: Bagpipe Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales.