Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mending Good Neighbors

"Good fences make good neighbors" - Robert Frost

When we moved into this house, one of the reasons we picked it was the privacy fence. Little did we know that the fence was recently constructed, and on the cheap, to attract a buyer. The posts were not treated against moisture rot, nor were they standard 4x4s, and the rails were 1x3's instead of 2x4's. The result after two years is a leaning mess.

This fence leans because the post has rotted clean through at ground level. I blame the sandworms, personally.

the weight of the unsupported fence panels has cracked the concrete footer of this corner post. this one has to be replaced too.

The sagging rails and warped pickets are minor problems, mostly aesthetic. I'd have to rebuild the whole fence. The pictures above, however, show posts that have rotted clean through at ground level due to moisture rot. The only thing to be done is to replace them.

Step 1: Detach fence panels from post. Of course, as soon as you do that, the post has nothing to hold it up, and it falls over.
The base of this post has crumbled to worm food at the soil line. 

detached fence panels
closeup of rotted end of post. n.b. I counted 27 slugs living inside
Step 2: Since these posts are kept in the ground by a concrete footer sunk 18inches in the ground, that means we have to dig out the stub of the post, encased in concrete, before we can put in a new post. And because the old post rotted  off at the soil line, we have nothing with which to grab the footer. Time to dig.

most specs recommend at least 18" depth for these footers, so they stay deeper than the frost line, preventing heaving out of the ground. These were only 12" in, but since it doesn't get too cold here, I didn't bother going much deeper.

these suckers are heavy, even at only 16" x 8" cylinder

Step 3: Go buy some treated 4x4 posts and concrete. Put the new post in the old hole, plumb it, level it, and brace it. Then fill the hole with concrete.

refill the hole with dirt before adding water to the concrete. check your post level every time you touch the hole.

If the footer extends slightly above grade, water-to-wood contact is minimized.
Step 4: After 24 hours, reattach fence panels, and you are good to go.

Alternate method: For one of the posts, I tried a product called a Speed Post, which is esentially a 30" metal stake with a bracket to hold the butt of a 4x4 at the top.

You sink the stake into the ground and bolt the 4x4 into the bracket, eliminating the need for a concrete footer. It was certainly faster, and the post seems just as stable, but at over $20 each, it wasn't worth the dosh imho.

Remember folks, I do this shit with my bare goddamn hands.


Seen today while hiking the Cape Fear River Trail.

Lucanus elaphus a.k.a. the Giant Stag Beetle. No scale in the photos, but it was about 3 inches long.

This striking insect is easily among North America’s most distinctive and recognizable species by virtue of the enormously super-sized mandibles sported by the males. Its fearsome appearance belies the true nature of this harmless beetle, which spends its days feeding on sap that flows from wounds on the trunks and roots of trees

Males use their massive mandibles in combat with other males, not for “biting,” but rather as tools to pry and lift their adversaries before dropping them to the ground.
As a kid, I always imagined these were so terrifying and rare, that if I saw one, it would be the last thing I ever saw before I was decapitated and ground into paste. Plus, they are constantly stealing your energon cubes.

 But, hey, I'm still here!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Spring Color

I meant to get around and take photos of the spring blooms earlier, but things have been bananas, so I missed the phlox, cherry, redbud and the jessamine blossoms. So just imagine them.

These other plants have managed to survive our both the recent tornado and our chronic mismanagement (so far):

snapdragons (yellow)

these little dianthuses (dianthii?) smell like clove  

planted three of these knockout rosebushes (pink)

also planted three of these mophead hydrangeas.
once the roots creep into our acidic soil, the flowers will turn blue

the redbud tree puts out some great color

coral bells (fore), japanese maple (aft)
patriot lilies

Thanks for looking.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This Season's Agenda

The temperatures are warming, and though the plants are still asleep, the legions of toads have resumed their nocturnal councils in the adjacent pine barrens. That can only means one thing: it's time to play Sisyphus as I fight to retrieve my house from the entropic clutches of the surrounding dank. Oh yeah, and there may be a toad uprising, so I guess that's two things.

Here's the to-do list so far...
1. Plant more creeping phlox, and a few showy annuals. Our droughty summer and cold winter have killed half of the phlox we planted last Spring. The rest are coming back, but not yet blooming. Hopefully, we'll get something like this going soon :
not our phlox, but beautiful all the same.

not our nandina, just an example.
I'd also like to put something taller with winter interest coming up out of the phlox, but don't have any ideas. Most folks around here do nandina, but that's a little too common. Maybe.

2. Powerwash the north side of the house. It looks like this will be a yearly thing. The siding and patio on the north side of the house grows algae readily in the mid to late winter. Yuck. Maybe someone can invent an acutely toxic house paint that will kill anything living that comes within 3 mm of it. That would solve my solicitor problem as well.

3. Replace the shingle molding (and maybe fascia) on the north side of the house. The molding installed when the house was built is a composite cardboardy stuff. It got wet, and when the ice hung from it this winter, it pulled it down in pieces. Who builds a house out of cardboard?? We found the same crap used in the bathroom trim.
cardboard shingle molding will disintegrate, but a pink work short is forever 

4. Replace fence posts / boards. I've got a number of warped fence boards, and even more ass-painy, 3 fence posts that have rotted away above their concrete footers. So, I've got to pry off the fence panels, dig out the footer and replace the post and pour new concrete for each one. The whole fence really needs to be replaced, using treated posts, 3 rails, and screws, not nails. But can't afford that this year, so it's triage patch repairs. 

Greetings from Fayetteville!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer Project: Paver Patio

Out first-time home buyers tax credit left us with some funds. We used the majority to pay down debt, but decided to spend a bit on a home improvement. Since I don't teach this Summer, it was decided that I would undertake a Project in my spare time. (Please note: academics don't really have spare time. We have time where we don't have to be in a classroom, but we are still supposed to be doing other things.)

After much deliberation, we decided to build a low platform deck in the backyard. This would be a good thing since our house came with a small concrete slab that is a) unattractive, b) prone to flooding, and c) not very big.

After doing weeks of scholarly research into decks, my will began to flag. Decks require lots of cuts. Hammering is hard. The Ms. didn't seem very enthused about my Project either. An anonymous gentleman from the Internet suggested we all (i.e. humans generally) build paver patios instead, as they are easier than decks and require less maintenance. Zounds, that is an idea.

So, we decided to do a concrete paver patio because

  1. it is more durable, if built correctly, than a deck.
  2. it requires no tedious nails or screws, nor periodic refinishing
  3. the Ms. prefers the Olde Worlde graveltas of stone
  4. the man from the Internet said it would be easier
The patio, at approx. 22'x16' would be fairly larger than the current slab. Masons cord and stakes were used to make sure the patio would be level from west to east, and gently sloped away from the house for drainage. A curved apron would make things prettier, but annoying.

In a professional job, one would jackhammer that 4 inch thick concrete slab, and haul it away, but I am either lazy, cheap, or reasonable, and so I left it. To remedy the different soil densities, the areas around the slab were excavated to a depth of 2-3 inches and backfilled with crushed gravel.

Normally, a paver patio is done below ground so the tops of the pavers are flush with or slightly above grade. We're building on a slab, so this whole patio needs to be raised 6 inches. So, we need a retaining wall to keep the pavers and delicious patio filling contained.

First we need to order materials. In the end, we had approximately 15 tons of gravel, sand, and block delivered to the driveway, with only a single trusty wheelbarrow to get it all to the backyard.

Then a trench was dug down 5 inches, backfilled with 2 inches of compacted gravel, on which the first row of wall blocks was placed... half below grade to keep them from shifting outwards.

Getting these blocks level was a nightmare. Eventually, 3 inch caps were put on top of the blocks.

Then we added 3 inches / 4 tons of crushed gravel and compacted it with a really heavy orange machine (actually called a plate tamper).


Next we used screed pipes to put down a 1.5 inch bed of sand over the whole area and place the pavers on top. The pavers are designed to be placed randomly. The Ms. thought this should be a pattern that only has the appearance of randomness. But no, the pavers are designed to be laid out in a truly random fashion.

The curved uneven shape of the patio required lots of cut pavers. In lieu of renting a masonry saw, I fit an angle grinder with a diamond blade and commandeered the jungle gym for a work bench, much to the toddler's dismay.


The pavers have small gaps between them to allow for joint sand to get in between them and friction lock them in place. 

Without joint sand: (ignore the swollen pregnancy abdomen obscuring the foreground)

We used a polymeric joint sand that hardens with water. This keeps ants and weeds from infiltrating the sand, as well as protects from rainstorm washouts. Here's a shot after sweeping sand into the joints, compacting, sweeping more sand, compacting, sweeping more sand, then activating with water.

The tops of the new pavers come up flush with the old brick step, so I used leftover pavers to make a new step.

The finished product... (although the color is washed out from joint sand residue)

Final Reckoning:

Time to complete: 4 weeks
Materials Used: 15 tons
Average Working day temperature: 96 F
Tools broken: 1
Fingers smashed: 3
Shins scraped: 3
Gatorade consumed: 3-4 gallons
Toads Displaced: 7

Monday, April 5, 2010

Farm and Garden

Reasons why I want to grow vegetables:
1. we have a huge back yard
2. produce apparently grows really well here year-round
3. I'm tired of paying like $9 for a head of lettuce

Luckily for us, the previous owners of our house built a fenced in area in the back yard for their dogs that will serve as the perfect enclosed garden to keep our dog out! The Portly Groundskeeper was nice enough to build me some raised planters for the garden area back in March, and I've finally started a few crops!

I have peas and onions in the big box, with room for tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots now that the weather is warmer. Actually, we had about 8 days of Spring and now it's in the 80s and 90s, so I better plant the others soon!

In my herb garden I've got oregano (ore-gaah-no if you're British), parsley, and basil. They're all doing fairly well, but not growing as fast as I'd like, because I really want to be that person who cooks with home-grown herbs.

And lastly, I planted two blueberry bushes. The tags on the blueberry bushes say that it's best to plant two separate species next to each other to promote cross-pollination, and therefore a better crop. These aren't looking so healthy right now because our soil is so dense with clay that the roots may not be getting enough air and drainage. I should have requested a third raised bed before the builder's back went out making the other two!

I did try to plant some lettuce back in March. Because the weather wasn't quite warm enough then, I started them in a little starter-kit you can buy at the local garden store (Lowe's for me). The starter-kit has 50 little dehydrated pellets of pitch, each in its own little circle-compartment, on a single tray. You're supposed to water the pitch to make them grow an inch or two, then bury the seeds into the raised dirt. You keep the whole tray in indirect sunlight inside the house so it stays warm, and a few days later you've got sprouts! Once it's warm enough outside you can transplant the pellets and seeds to the ground. This is why you see little white baggy-looking things around the herb plants.

I followed these directions, but maybe I put too many seeds in each dirt pellet, or maybe the transfer was too traumatic. Whatever the case, only two lettuce sprouts survived the transfer into the ground, and it's doing alright so far. Next time I will be patient and plant seeds directly into the ground so as to avoid transfer trauma!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bespoke Poke Smoke

Carolina barbecue. It's pork. On this side of the state they use vinegar and hot sauce. Its pulled or shredded. Fine. That recipe has potential. But I have a complaint. Most barbecue places I've visited since I moved here don't bother smoking their meat, you guys. I know. Now I'm going to be charitable and assume this is because I've been going to the wrong places, and not because Carolina doesn't bother with smoke. If there's one thing this part of the country excels at, it's overindulging on meat and smoking. So, just to be sure we're on the same page, here is my tribute to Carolina barbecue.

Step 1: Buy your meat. In Texas we prefer brisket, but here the go-to cut is pork shoulder. Either a picnic cut or Boston butt will do. I picked the butt (which is really the front of the shoulder) because it's more conducive to puns.

Step 2. Marinate. The night before you cook, soak your butt (see?!). I use a combination of apple juice, apple cider vinegar, worcestershire sauce, smashed garlic cloves, olive oil, some citrus juice (this time I had some old limes laying around), a dash of hot sauce, sugar, and salt. I also had some white wine that I needed to use, but don't tell anyone I foo-fooed my barbecue with it. This is really more an art than a science, so as long as you have some acid, sugar, and salt, be a Picasso, man.

Step 3. Rub. After a soak, you need to take your butt out of the buttjuice (how fun is this?) and pat it dry with paper towels. Then liberally massage with your choice of dry rub. The point of dry rub is that a slow cooking piece of meat will exude all kind of juices, which will wash off most liquid sauces and junk. A good firm rub will get into the cracks, and dissolve INTO the juices, penetrating the meat. I use a mixture of brown sugar, salt, paprika, black pepper, and cayenne. For the pork, I added some cumin.

Step 4. Smoke. Smoke is the essence of barbecue. Without smoke, barbecue is something else. It's meat cooked outside. Now, a brisket or pork shoulder is a nasty piece of meat, filled with connective tissue, fat, collagen, and elastins. If you were to just grill it, it would be tought, spongy and gross. BUT. If you cook it slowly (like all day) over low heat, all that hoary gristly nasty melts away into sweet sweet nectar. The key is to cook your meat 90 minutes / pound at around 200-250 F. again, when you cook something for 9 hours, it's more of an art than a science, and these cuts of meat are forgiving.

Now, you could do the whole cooking time in the oven, but that's just a roast. I'm not you're Aunt Betty. I don't make roasts. Conveniently, a smoker will produce low levels of heat while bathing your butt in delicious carcinogenic vapor.

I don't have a proper smoker, but I do have a large charcoal grill. Here's my setup:

One one side, I have a small mound of coals, covered in woodchips. On the other side, the meat. If I place the lid on, and the vent open above the meat (not above the chips), the air current carries a stream of smoke over the meat constantly.

Ignore the lighter fluid, it plays no meaningful role in this process.

Periodically, I have to put new soaked wood chips on the pile of embers to keep things going. Wet chips smoke more and last longer. Soak your chips for an hour in water. I found that an extra couple charcoal briquettes every hour keeps the embers from going out.

Keep the smoke going as long as possible. I have problems keeping it up. There, I've said it. Usually, my embers die out before the meat is done. Finishing in the oven is nothing to be ashamed of, it hapens to lots of guys. As long as your meat has had 4-6 hours of smoke. But ideally, you'll do the whole thing in the smoke.

As of 10:35 am this pork butt is about 30% done. Notice the deep purplish color. Smoke reddens a meat, and then blackens it. This should be as black as coal when it comes off the rack. Not charred, but coated in pleasure.

Carolina style pulled pork is then shredded, served with a vinegar sauce, and sometimes put on buns. But if you've smoked and rubbed it appropriately, the sauce will be for the Philistines.