Wednesday, September 28, 2011

So I Built A Patio

We recently had a fence installed that makes the entire backyard nice and private. (So no more trespassers wandering in for illicit sex in my backyard.) It really happened. Apparently they had not heard of Leave No Trace and thought I'd appreciate their latex donations.

Tell me about it.
At least it wasn't in the garden.

Let's move on. Once the fence went up, an odd space between our backyard gate and the rest of the garden/workshop area appeared. It's shady in the afternoon and we decided it was the perfect spot for a installing a patio. Our front porch is great, but it's narrow, L-shaped, and best suited for accommodating only 4 or 5 people. It's also blazing hot after 2 pm.

First, I used some salvaged wood to build a frame for the bench and a flower planter. The bench's lid is hinged and provides storage inside. The boxed open end will be filled with soil, then herbs and flowers. I also installed an old 2x6 connecting the bench to the fence as a step.

By the way, one of the best things is that the whole project cost less than $20. I bought a box of screws, 2 landscape timbers, 2 hinges, and a few cedar fencing planks. OK, maybe $25, but it was all made possible by delightfully generous neighbors and scrounging around the neighborhood.

A neighbor putting in a driveway had extra fill and river rocks. Score #1. I laid them directly on the lawn, watered, and tamped them down several times.

He also had at least 3/4 cu. yd. of decomposed granite (DG) he needed removed. Score #2. Scattered that, watered, tamped, repeat. And the foundation is done.

Another neighbor is a landscaper and had flagstone he couldn't use and wanted to get rid of. Why, thank you kind sir. Score #3. So I laid it, leveled it, and filled the gaps with the DG. A little water and little adjusting... We'll see what happens when it finally rains for real again.

All it took was moving 1000s of pounds of rock one wheelbarrow at a time. My other neighbors surely thought I was crazy.

On Gentrification.

2 new homes have been built across the street over the past year or so. One was built where a condemned house once stood, the other 10 feet away on what used to be a lawn. I watched a team of maybe 3 guys knock that old house down by hand over the course of one weekend. They said I could have anything I wanted, so I dragged old lumber (nice lumber!), tin roofing, plywood, and rebar across the street and into my backyard. Material from that house made the chicken coop, rain barrel supports, sawhorses, and the frame for the patio and its bench. And I still have a huge stockpile.

The house that rose up from the ruins is hideous. I can't imagine why anyone would have bought it. I've casually met the tenant and pray she's just renting. But it's better than the boarded up death trap where kids and drug addicts once competed for the most dangerous place on the block to hang out.

I have a hard time reconciling my feelings about gentrification and my role in it. I was thinking about it the other day out back relaxing with a chicken (Boutros Boutros Chicken) and a beer.

How did I appear to my neighbors while I physically participated in the transformation of my block? Carrying timbers from a decrepit house that had been there as long as anyone could remember into the backyard of my new house? Were they resigned to change? Resentful of it? Happy? All of the above?

Am I gentrifying? I think I have/am. I haven't lived in a suburb since I graduated high school. I've never bought property, but for the last 12 or so years I have always rented in areas undergoing gentrification. And I'm talking some places where I was the white dude everyone knew. Cause I was practically the only white dude. And I'm friendly.

Once, while walking home from work, a woman dressed in her Sunday best yelled at me to "get out of Harlem white boy, and take that white trash with you." (referring to my girlfriend who was walking alongside me) And this was on Frederick Douglass Blvd. a block North of Central Park. We didn't say anything back- I was just shocked. But as I was silently contemplating the irony of the street name, a few of the ubiquitous corner guys who saw it go down approached and apologized to us. I appreciated that.

I'm not sure how to feel about the woman though. She was at least 60 at the time. Maybe she had a point. Maybe she had horrible experiences in the 50's and 60's in the south, moved to New York only to endure the 70's and 80's there. And just when Harlem was turning around and getting safer and nicer, all these newcomers started pushing longtime residents out. I'd probably be mad, too.

My block in Austin is diverse. Oddly diverse. And it is a tiny slice of East Austin. This really is my block: Poor college kids. Middle class, lower-middle class, poor people. Crazy people living in a defunct Winnebago in the side yard of a house full of maybe 8? people. Hispanic Multi-family compound- double digits. White yuppies that make at least 6 figures. African American families who've been in the neighborhood since segregation when East Austin was the only place they could settle. Even an Asian guy.

But it's clear which way the winds are blowing. And this close to downtown, money more than anything is the determining factor. Taxes will keep going up and jobs for unskilled workers keep disappearing. The incentive to sell to developers and move elsewhere will be unavoidable. This could be Hyde Park in 50 years.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

So If It Ever Rains...

In this wonderful Austin heat you could spend hours every week watering your garden. I find it soothing and relaxing, but it is time consuming. Not to mention wasteful, and a hassle when you leave town.

I mean what I say about a wonderful heat. It's remarkable. Even as Austin increasingly becomes the polar opposite of Winnipeg, I'd still prefer a 9 month summer to a 9 month winter. Hands down. Living up North, you prep for battle against the elements every morning before going outside. Gloves, scarves, hats, socks and more socks, layers of clothing, glacier-climbing boots, etc. In Austin you don't dig through yards of snow to get to your car. As much as people complain, it's only hot and dry. Just get on your bike, and soon you will arrive at your destination to find yourself ensconced in the chilly womb of air conditioning. And you will be very sweaty.

This Spring, before I realized it would never rain again, I installed an irrigation system for our backyard vegetable garden.

Dear Leader Rick Perry prayed for the health of my fruits and vegetables, God bless his heart, but it seems they were far too sinfully liberal to deserve any heaven-sent precipitation. So they've made due all year with my secular watering.

The system is just a "rain" barrel connected to the "rain" gutter on one side of the house. There's an on/off valve at the base of the barrel, and from there a hose connects to drip irrigation lines for the garden. Throughout this drought I've set a spigot timer on a hose (from the house) which fills the barrel halfway twice a day- at dawn and dusk. Gravity takes care of the rest since the barrel is about a meter off the ground.

It's easy to make and expand along with your gardening aspirations. My local brewery supply store that sells empty food-grade barrels for $10. I'm sure there are other sources, but I take comfort in knowing for sure what was in that barrel before I douse my garden with its contents.

The rest of the kit is a few washers, silicone caulk, a hose clamp, and the valve. Then you'll just need some garden hose, and the drip irrigation lines for however large your garden is. We've used the tape type and it's worked just fine. Just a short trip to the orange big box candy store. Drill a hole in the bottom of the barrel, place locking washers on each side of the valve, caulk the gaps, make a good seal, and you're done. I also put screens on top of the barrel to keep animals and debris out of the irrigation lines.

But the sad truth is we've stopped watering now. Except for the mushroom logs and the peppers. (bell, jalapeno, & serrano) They'll make it with a simple hosing every couple of days. Everything else is a lost cause. And when I'm out in the garden hanging with chickens, the sneaky tomatoes that bravely survived the heat and squirrels immediately find their way into my mouth. Too bad for them.

Special thanks to K. Crosier for engineering assistance.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Willie Covers Coldplay

Greenwashing! I abhor corporate greenwashing. You see it every day in advertising. But I'll make an exception with this Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay. I enjoy each of them. Plus a nice animated short film with a fine message.

I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, but highly doubt it is true in practice in large scale franchises like Chipotle.