Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas at Leaning Oak

We had hoped to be in our house, hosting a family reunion, for Christmas 2015.  It did not happen.  It all worked out, anyway.  That being said, 2016 is our first Christmas, and I'll admit, rushing to get decorated for the 2015 Christmas would have been painful.  I am glad this is our first Christmas at Leaning Oak.

What we realized is that this house could not use all the decorations from our previous house.  What does one do with stairway garland when there are no stairs?  How do we arrange our Dicken's Village miniatures?  What should the outside lighting be?  Will our existing ornaments and lights work well on a tree which is 50% taller?  The answer to the above questions?  AART -- Adapt, Add, Replace, Toss (as in, "toss in the trash).  The fine art of AART, at least for us, can be summarized, though not exhaustively, in the following:

Add: icicles lights along the roofline of the house, lighted swags to the coach-style security lights on the garages, potted and lighted evergreen trees for the lanai, deco-jars/lanterns for the inside fireplace, clustered ornaments for the new tree (Pam created the clusters by tying 4-6 red and gold plastic ornaments together), which has a surface area 2.3 times greater than our old tree.  The clusters act as focal points, and by adding normal ornaments around them, it is easier to appreciate the normal-sized ornaments, otherwise, they get lost in the huge surface area of the tree.

Adapt: stairway garland to mantle and table garland, which meant making shorter sections and removing lights, and morphing an eclectic collection of gold-colored trees, ornaments, and angels into a centerpiece for the kitchen island.

Replace: the Christmas tree, as we bought the new one after Christmas in 2014 in anticipation of the 2015 Christmas.  Buying the Balsam Hill tree after Christmas 2014 saved us about 40% in costs.   We converted all of our lighting to LED, replacing all incandescent Christmas lighting.  Our wire-frame outdoor nativity scene needed its incandescent rope lights replaced, which I did with new LED "strip lighting".  The strip lighting is adhesive on one side, intended as an under-the-cabinet accent light.  The adhesive side was ignored by me, as it would not endure the outdoor conditions nor stick well to the round steel of the nativity.  I strapped the lighting to the nativity using white zip ties (after repainting the nativity with a high-gloss white paint to restore the nativity and give it more reflectance).  The LED strip lighting was much more flexible than the incandescent rope light, and much easier to attach.  It it also much brighter than the old rope lights ever were.

Toss: we tossed several storage boxes of incandescent miniature string lights and net lights, a few boxes of generic ornaments we'll not need, the old tree, a couple of outdoor artificial lighted deciduous trees which really did not work for us anymore.

The pictures below give you an idea of what our first Christmas here will look like:

The tree is over 12 feet tall (3.7+ m)
and adorned with 2000 LED lights.

The tree at night, and the reddish
decorations which are visible are
the cluster ornaments, consisting
of red and gold normal-sized ornaments
tied together as one.

The Nativity as seen from the house.  I placed it in the natural grove we have preserved in the front of the property.  The
branches of the live oak and the grasses lend to the look of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus being in an ancient stable.

The Great Room is ready for Christmas.  We adapted a stairway garland for the
mantle, and placed our Dickens' Village in the shelves to the right of the
fireplace -- a forethought in our design of this room.

This is a close-up of our indoor nativity and Dickens' Village miniatures.  We
did add "street lights" so that there is not a dark hole around the skating pond area

This is the centerpiece for the kitchen island (a.k.a, the kitchen 'continent'),
surrounded by angel hair and gold garland.  There is still plenty of room to
prepare a meal, and this picture also highlights the flow from the kitchen to
the Great Room, and yes, the far side of the island allows for bar seating.

We added these small evergreens to accent the lanai area.  The lights
are on timers and are set to be on for six hours and off for 18 hours.
This is the lanai in daylight, with the trees from the previous photo at the left
of the fireplace,  We added "NOEL" pillows and a seasonal centerpiece.

We have rockers and a table on either side of the front door, and so in your
mind, mirror image this picture and you can "see" how the front porch looks.
NOEL pillows adorn the chairs, and artificial trees accent the front door.

The entrance to our house just seemed to beg for icicle lights, and I complied,
with pleasure.  The whole roofline celebrated with me.  I have been wanting to
do this since we drew-up the facade in the architectural design phase. 
As one can see, the icicle lights completely illuminate the front of the house,
and turning on the porch lights is unnecessary.  We had electrical outlets
installed in the soffits to facilitate Christmas lighting.

Silent Night.  Merry Christmas from our family to yours...

Finishing touch...

We had to re-think the area adjacent to the house where the dogs have their fenced-in area.  It was originally planted with lantana, mulched, and had four-inch flagstone laid as a footpath.  All that remained after a few months of puppies was the flagstone.  Many holes were dug, some to see what is under the flagstone, some randomly placed for fun, and some in pursuit of the drainpipe that runs along the back of the house -- they found it about two feet down.  Further, the boys remained a disaster, making it difficult to have them in the main areas of the house simply because they were always dirty or muddy.  We swept the utility room (which they access through a dog-door and where their crates abide) twice a day, sweeping up half of a dustpan worth of dirt each time.  We want the boys to spend more time inside with us, so a solution had to be found.

The solution was not easy, but has made life with the boys much fuller.  I removed the flagstone from the area of concern.  I then proceeded to use my landscaper's rake (the head of which is three feet wide (0.9m)) to level what I could.  My older daughter and I then proceeded to add 14 bags of dirt (40 pounds each (18 kg)) to fill-in and tap-down the remaining holes and areas needing leveling.  After that, we laid two four feet by 50 feet (1.2m by 15.24 m) rolls of chicken wire (a.k.a. "poultry net").  We anchored them in-place using landscaping stables.  After that, we moved the flagstone back into position.  We then covered the area with cypress mulch, which tends to stay when it gets wet as opposed to floating away as pine mulch can do.  THe result is that the boys stay much cleaner, and we can let them in at-will.

Did it stop them from digging?  Yes, once they paw through the mulch and hit the chicken wire, they stop.  They still dig in the areas not covered by the chicken wire, which are all further away from the house.  Lessons learned?  Yes, when putting down the chicken wire, using the landscape staples to hold the ends is not enough alone.  I had to go back and use straight wire to lash the chicken wire to the fence, and this kept them from pulling at the ends.  If I could have gone under the fence and put the ends and staples out of their reach, it would have been fine to just use the staples.

Here are some pictures from the project, the last major landscaping effort (and a re-do at that!) for the main campus:

You can see in this picture that all the lantana and mulch have been removed
by the presence of "the boys".  It should be noted the unevenness of the surface
which is typical throughout the area, except out of picture to the right, where
deeper holes existed.

The stones removed (ufff!), ground filled and
leveled, and now the sections of chicken wire
are in place.  The boys were with us as we worked.

The boys at the gate of the refurbished area.
They are a curious and affectionate pair.

The finished product, highlighting the restored flagstone path.  The re-do of the path helped fix some of the
shortcomings of the original effort.  The bullrocks immediately in front of the extended porch were reworked to prevent
the rocks from sinking (weed-block material was put down before laying the chicken wire) and to integrate better with
the footpath and facilitate better water run-off.

...and it is so nice to have them inside whenever I want...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rains of fall are coming...

Here in the sub-tropical climate that is the upper Texas Gulf Coast, we basically have the dry season and the wet season each year -- not nearly as defined as Central America, but we get most of our rain from November through April.  Ironically, hurricane season is basically May through October -- our hot and dry time of the year, unless a hurricane makes landfall.

Here is what we are looking toward weather-wise:

All that blue area says we will see roughly 4.5 inches (11.43 cm) of rain through the weekend, and it could be as high as 6.0 inches (15.24 cm).  This will be a big test for all the engineering we have done to manage water flow in and around the property.  Our berm does have some grass on it -- I over-seeded with annual ryegrass a couple of weeks ago and it has germinated.  The berm looks green, though the grass is still thin.  Nonetheless, there is still straw and now grass, so the berm should stand well.  There is a place adjacent to our outdoor stairs (actually, the only stairs on the property) which I will steady with some mulch today.  I am interested to see how the French drains handle the drain, as we built them with twice the water capacity of a standard drain system.

When one builds on his own property, things like drainage are serious issues for the house, driveways, sidewalks, garages, plants, and the list goes on.  Getting it right is crucial to protecting the value of the home.  When one is in a residential development, all of these things are worked out before the streets are poured.  Building on one's own lot?  It falls to the shoulders of the owner.  

If you have not yet built on your property, my advice is to go out and observe it during a heavy rain.  Put on the rubber boots and walk it, paying attention to all water flow around every contour.  Learn how water moves around and on your property.  It will be very helpful during the house-placement and construction phases, especially to insure that construction traffic does not destroy vital flow patterns (as we experienced).

Christmas decorations are up, and I will have pictures in my next post.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Everything has been put to bed, so to speak...

Yesterday I reached an important milestone: all areas immediately adjacent to the house have their landscaping done (OK, one area has a plan, which it did not have last week, and that plan will execute after the holidays) and we have entered into maintenance mode.  The building of trails in our wooded area will be next year's project.

I brought in six yards of mulch, 1/2 yard of topsoil, 19 lantana, five coneflowers, and planted our three potted yellow mums.  All the beds have been addressed.  The maintenance remaining mostly involves lawn care, and overseeding the lawn areas when spring arrives.

Further, it is berry season now, and I have enclosed some pictures to highlight the colors which surround us.
Here are the pictures as we close this important chapter at Leaning Oak.

The bed where the bougainvillea lives received fresh mulch -- 18
wheelbarrows of it.  I also moved some spare flagstone to add accent.

The bougainvillea will get a sister plant, and between the two of them, we
will install a small fountain.  The plan is set, and due to execute in early 2017.

The stairs and terrace received their lantana and mulch.  There are 19 lantana
plants, with nine on each side of the stairs and one at the back of the terrace
(to conceal a standpipe).  The lantana will help minimize erosion adjacent to
the stairs, and we will add solar-powered lighting in the spring.

Our stone two-car garage, originally designated as an outside recreation room,
is now the home of our lawn maintenance vehicles.  It is a pretty structure, in
my opinion, as the multi-colored stone creates visual interest.  A stone wall
needs ivy (my opinion), and we have fig ivy in place.  We planted yellow mums
(foreground) and pink coneflowers (middle row) for color.  Both are perennials
in our area.  The stone in the bed covers a drain box and prevents it from clogging.

The Yaupon holly has come forth with brilliant red berries. Its cousin, the
American holly, will have its berries by Thanksgiving (next week).

A close of the Yaupon berries -- makes a nice computer wallpaper!

The American Beautyberry, though mostly leafless, is strutting its colors.

I found one with a pair of leaves intact, just to give context.

We are not allowed (per our trash service) to put landscaping and construction
trash out for pickup.  We do what other country-folks do -- we have a burn day.
We wait for a good rain to make sure the flora around us is not threatened, which
can take a few weeks during some times of the year.  Here, we are burning a lot
of landscaping debris, debris from the construction of our dog run, and debris
from the construction of  the stairs and terrace.  The remnants have been cleared
and grass seed sown over the ground where the burn took place.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A test for all the landscaping work...

We had a good rain yesterday, recording 0.5 inches (1.27 cm) of rainfall.  It all fell over a couple of hours.  We had standing water from the driveway run-off.  The new French drains worked beautifully, as there was no standing water an hour after the rain stopped.  There was no fast-moving water seen -- the dry creek bed, with its bullrock providing orders of magnitude more surface area for the water to traverse, slowed flow from the top of our property as planned.  The new berm did its job.  The run-off ditch did have water in it; it just filled rather slowly, as we had planned.  Both the dry creek bed and the French drain system feed the run-off ditch.

We are very pleased with the outcomes of this first test.  I know more wait for us in the future as we are getting ready to hit our "wet season".

The dry creek bed and French drains (to the left, out of the picture) feed
the drainage ditch, but one sees no surface water in the creek bed and
would only see a little standing water around the French drains during the rain.

The drainage ditch has water, but its flow is much slower than one would find
in previous pictures of water flow.  The berm is minimizing any waterfalls which
have come through the woods at this juncture.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Landscaping, Phase 2 completed.

As posted previously, landscaping-of-the-engineering-kind had been ongoing.  It completed this past week.  There are a couple of minor projects for me to do in the near future -- like getting an answer to the puppies' area where every plant has been destroyed -- but, by in-large, the landscaping/engineering efforts are complete.  Pam and I will decide on how to landscape a couple of areas, but no more contractors so far as the immediate landscaping is concerned.  I will need a contractor to help clear the trail in the woods.  That will take place in a few weeks.  

As far as near the house is concerned, landscaping -- both of the engineering and aesthetic kind -- is about 85% complete.  It is a big relief, especially as it appears we have grass covering all areas, bringing the erosion under control.  The grass is not great and good-looking yet, but it is enough to keep the soil in place, and some areas are showing promise.  I am using Texoka buffalograss in my "manicured turf" areas, blue grama on all slopes, and a mix of blue grama and fescues in other areas.  I have also sown high-quality Texas wildflower seeds in key accent areas -- I will have to wait until spring to see whether or not this was a fruitful effort.

We also completed the construction of flagstone stairs and a terrace in the basin at the rear of the house.  As mentioned in earlier blog entries, the pad on which the house was built is up to six feet (two meters) above the natural ground level.  The slopes are steep, making it dangerous for young and old alike to traverse safely.  The stairs we built are two feet (0.61 meters) wide and a comfortable four inches (0.11 meters) in height, and have a handrail running down the middle at three feet (0.9 meters) high.  It should work for us when we have more than 80 years.

I fell in love with bougainvillea in my travels to Morocco and Spain.  Pam and I decided to plant one in an urn (bougainvillea flowers best when it is root-bound) as an experiment.  The area in which we placed it gets six to eight hours of sunlight per day, so we shall see...

The dry creek bed is intended to the take the water flowing from the right-of-way
area and slow its flow.  The flow from the culvert (upper right) is being directed away
from the dry creek bed via a repaired berm.  Tall grasses will also slow the water
flow, reducing erosional damage.

The French drain system will alleviate the problem of standing water and
erosional issues across the front of the house.  The area under the large oak
around which the driveway bends (upper left) was raised to direct water
around the tree and toward the seven-box drain system.

This photo was taken under the oak tree cited above.  It is an example of the
texoka buffalograss coming through its protective straw.  As can be seen, it
is fine-bladed, and it is drought resistant, also.  Hopefully, it will prove
to be a good turfgrass for us.

The texoka buffalograss is beginning to dominate the bermuda grass in this
picture.  By using cutting heights more favorable to the texoka, the
bermudagrass will eventually weaken and die.  The turf texture is more
aesthetically pleasing now that the texoka buffalograss has emerged.

This is the framing of the outdoor stairs and terrace in the backyard, to which
I refer as "the basin".  The top of the stairs is four feet (1.2 meters) above the
natural ground level.

Cement is poured, or at least in pouring progress.  It will need to cure before
adding the flagstone.  The poles for the rail are natural cedar.

The stairs and terrace are completed, and the handrail finished.  We added
the table around which the terrace dimensions were derived, and dirt and
topsoil have been added.  Both ryegrass and blue grama were sown and
covered with straw so the seeds will not get washed away during irrigation or rain.

The clustered bougainvillea experiment, shown in the afternoon sun with
the shadow of the lanai chimney falling before it.  It has been in-place for
two weeks and continues to show new growth.

This is an updated photo of our house, taken today.  The last 9 1/2 months have been a labor of love.  Hard labor, to be
sure, but would have been much more difficult if we were not shaping our dream home.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Landscaping or Engineering?

That is the question.  Truthfully, when most of us think of "landscaping", we think aesthetically.  We envision flowers, shrubs, trees, accenting hardscapes.  The reality for us, right now, is that "landscaping" is "engineering".  We have a very important project going on right now, one which will help us better manage the large amounts of rain we can get in our area.  There are previous posts on the blog which will give you  a very good idea of our rain run-off challenges.  You might review those to get a better understanding of the context of this hardscape effort.

Perhaps next spring we can get back to the aesthetics of landscaping...

OK, as part of this project, the landscaping team cleaned and weeded our beds
in the front of the house.  We are grateful, as we had let it slip a little too much.

Extending across the front of the house, we have added a French drain system
which has drain boxes every ten feet (3m) and are connected via  a six-inch
(15cm) pipe.  We will have over twice the volume of the standard four-inch (10cm)
pipe, which we feel is needed since so much water is draining into this area. 
It will also eliminate any standing water which kills grass and spawns mosquitoes.

This pictures shows the "dry creek bed" we are installing to slow the water
which comes off the front of the property.  The dirt in the foreground is being
shaped into a berm to keep the water flow properly directed.  If you look at the
top of the dry creek bed and to its immediate right, you can see evidence of a berm
being constructed to direct water from the culvert away from the dry creek bed
and into the woods.  All water will make it into the drainage we have built at
Note also the native grasses and flora which have appeared with
fresh access to the sun.  The grasses will help slow the rush as water as well. The
berms will be seeded with native grasses for the same reason and their own stability.

The water runs off at a high velocity into this bank, which we have reinforced
with landscaping fabric and bullrock.  We hope to prevent erosion so that the
trees you see near the bullrock will not lose the strength and stability of their
root system and topple across the drive and possibly onto the two-car garage..

All the water from the motor court area drains toward the basketball goal.  As
a result, we were plagued with deep ruts behind the goal, making mowing
very difficult (and eventually threaten the basketball goal itself).  The rock bed behind
the goal will help with water run-off and make the entire side-yard easier to maintain.
Over-seeding with grass will be a priority for the next few years until good density
is obtained -- for the sake of erosion control, primarily, and aesthetics.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Taken a beatin'...

We are not the only ones to have experienced rainfall-related problems here in Texas.  There are a lot of people who got hit by the recent rains much worse than we did. A couple who are friends of ours had to be evacuated by air boat from their home. They sustained far more damage to their property than we could imagine. So as you look at the video and the pictures here, you will see that the rains and water are pretty intense, and yet we were the lucky ones.

The video is a mashup automatically generated by Google.  The two-gallon bucket, with only half of its top exposed, filled up in the time it will take you to watch the video.

To be sure, the rains have produced disheartening results. The temperatures have risen in May, and have revealed that all of the warm weather grass seed that I had sown previously has been beaten out of the ground and washed downstream. The green cool-weather grasses have gone dormant, which is not a pretty sight. I now have two weeks left to sow some native grasses in order for them to take hold and provide some protection against erosion for the rest of the summer and into the early fall. I found that I have a significant amount of hardscape work to do in order to protect our property from future rains.   This is an unexpected expense, adding to us being over 50% of budget already on landscaping.

You take the bad with the good, and this is certainly part of the bad. We know what we need to improve, without a doubt. This season has been very educational. I'm certain that we can make the corrections and additions to our landscaping that will help us better survive such torrential rains again. One thing is certain, I'm going to put a snorkel on that Jeep of mine.

The right bank (looking downstream from the top of our drive) looks pretty well behaved...

It picks up volume and speed has it runs downhill...

But it is of no consequence compared to what is coming off the right of way and from the community culvert...

Which also pushes larger amounts of water through the anterior woods as well...

And cuts deeply as it makes its turn downhill on the left bank...

Which propels the water downhill and aids in filling the creek which took out Pam's car a couple of weeks earlier.

We are grateful, for the water is away from the house and all are safe within.