Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Landscape Design 101: Avoiding 10 Common Beginner's Mistakes

Designing a landscape can be a daunting task. In my previous article, Texas Natives and East Coast Transplants, I gave my readers several plants I love working with in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. I want to talk a little bit now about how to design with those plants and address common rookie mistakes so you can make your landscapes picture perfect. Here's ten tips to get you on your way:

1. Form follows function- This mantra of the design world simply means that the landscape must achieve its function or it won’t get used no matter how beautiful it is. Know the function first.
a. Do you want to entertain in your landscape? (How many do you need to plan for?)
b. Do you want something pretty to look at from your bedroom window? (You don’t need a large sitting area in this space!)
c. Is the primary function of the landscape to garden and get exercise? (Make it comfortable to work in!)
d. Do you NEED grass? If not, plan for a different ground cover that isn't so water needy.
2. Design in concept first, then move progressively towards details- Get to know your site first. Look at it with new eyes and ask yourself, "What's going on here?" Architecture is the thoughtful making of space. Look at your site and determine what you need before you ever start considering plant selection. Say things to yourself and record them on paper like, “I need a shade tree right here, a sitting area for this many people, a focal point there” and then refine those decisions. During the next step, you should ask yourself, “What are the shade trees which do well in this area (Red Oak or Pecan), what kind of sitting area fits into my budget (Concrete or Flagstone on concrete base), what do I want to express with this focal point (Sculpture or Specimen plant)?"

3. When everything’s important, nothing is important- When I tell people I design drought tolerant landscapes, people really do think that I plant cactus all over the place. There’s a place for these guys and I’m not against them, but they’re really bold and draw a lot of attention and focus. Use focal points sparingly.

4. Maximize interest with the use of contrast- Use contrast wisely. Placing a Lamb’s Ear next to a Rosemary creates a contrast in texture for instance. You may want to develop a contrast in color by placing yellow Zexmenia next to a more blue Russian Sage (complimentary colors). You can surround a focal point with a benign plant or place a tall shrub every ten feet of a low and level hedge. Contrast brings interest. The more contrast, the more interest.

5. Plan the hardscapes first and plants last- Know where you're going to place your paths, patios, and water features first. Only then can you know how much room you have for the plants. Know the full size of the adult plant and stick to it, even if it means having a sparse looking garden at first. It’s going to look empty at first. Expect it.
6. Design to the next level up and down- Simply put, before you select a plant, know what kind of a landscape you have. Before you select a landscape, know what kind of a house you have. Do you have a Spanish style home? Use plants that look like they're from the Mediterranean. Make sure that what you’re doing LOOKS appropriate for the space and neighborhood.
7. Take a good hard look at design principles- Knowing your design rules will help you develop the concept design from my second point above. Every form of art from dance to music to landscape architecture applies the same rules of scale, rhythm, contrast, series, hierarchy, focal point, texture, form, etc… (See how many you can spot in the building below.)

8. Don’t be afraid to fail- Thomas Edison said he didn’t fail a thousand times at making a light bulb, he just discovered how not to do it a thousand times. Don't be paralyzed by the fear of messing up. Plan as best you can, then go for it!
9. Not everything needs to be symmetrical- As we say in Texas, "Nuf said."
10. Don’t just plan what you can see- Take time to research the things you can’t see. How do you make a good patio? How far down does a footing need to go for a retaining wall? What kind of dirt do I have and what will grow here? Ask yourself these kind of questions and you may be surprised at what you answer.

One last bonus tip... Don't be afraid to call in the professionals when you're in over your head OR make up your plan and submit it to an experienced designer for review. For a small fee, you may be able to avoid big pitfalls.

Finis origine pende- The beginning determines the end! Plan well and you shall reap well. -Jason

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Free School Meals: Necessity or Abuse?

It's 2 AM. And while it's not the dreaded 4 AM, I still can't sleep. Since I don't have to study (woohoo!), I figured I'd write!

An acquaintance on Facebook recently posted a link that states for the 2011-2012 school year, Walmart will feed every child that attends a Dallas Public School a free breakfast. The initiative is called "Breakfast in the Classroom". The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) is one of only 5 major school districts in the country chosen to share a 3 million dollar Walmart Foundation Grant that funds the program. The link above lists a myriad of reasons why a good breakfast is so important to a student's productivity in school, and I agree wholeheartedly with every one.

For the 2009-2010 school year, just over 80% of students enrolled at my daughter's elementary school were eligible for free/reduced breakfast and lunch. Of that number I am unsure just how many participate, but the Breakfast in the Classroom link states nationally less than half of those eligible for free breakfasts (doesn't specify lunch numbers) currently take advantage.

I love how the Walmart website states that students will "enjoy nutritionally well-balanced foods like breakfast wraps, yogurt, or fruit.." Yet this local Dallas news video link shows them eating fast-food-looking pancakes with syrup, orange juice, and what appears to be chocolate milk. But the vagaries of what they will serve is actually not what I'm writing about here today.

This can be a touchy subject and please read (and believe) my words - I know there are families/children in the Dallas area that are in desperate need of this kind of help. Walmart is providing a huge service to those families, and in turn to DISD so the school system (i.e. taxpayers) doesn't have to foot the bill. In theory it's a win-win, the private sector helping the public sector. What I have a problem with are parents taking advantage of the system and getting free lunches for their children when they have no need (breakfast has now been taken off the table for this discussion since Walmart's backing that in our city). It all comes down to priorities.

I personally know children that receive free lunches from the state/federal government that have iphones, ipods, excessively large flat screen TVs, and every gaming system/game/and DVD on the planet. And I don't mean the parents have these things - I mean the children! There is no way around it - it is completely unethical. Obviously I'm not talking about those families with a true need, but there are numerous instances - at my child's school, let alone all of the schools - where the parents choose not to buy good, healthy food for their children in favor of electronics and the newest gadgets.

In January we joined the Urban Acres organic food co-op. I had wanted to do this for a while, but $50 every two weeks seemed like an awful lot to spend on fruits and vegetables. Let me tell you folks - it is a steal. Every other Saturday I receive over 30 pounds of fresh, completely organic, in-season fruits and vegetables. Our family of five has never once been able to finish it all before the next pick-up. My kids eat at McDonald's probably twice a year - and it's usually while we're on the road heading to and from the east coast. I can assure you that many of the families claiming a need for free lunches spend $100/month on fast food when they could spend it on organic, nutritious food - and not use the government's money to feed their kids.

I guess some would say my 12, almost 11, and 4 year olds are deprived. None of them have a personal phone. None of them have an ipod. None of them have a gaming system - either personal or family-sized. We don't even have a TV! When the economy tanked in late 2008 we did what we had to to survive. We moved from a 3000 square foot house to a 1500 square foot rental to the 1000 square foot home we currently own. My three kids - gasp! - shared one room for the first two years we were in this house! My two oldest children even received free lunches from February 2009 through May of 2009. And they were a godsend. However, while on these free lunches we weren't buying souped-up cars, any electronics, cigarettes (that now cost around $5/pack! - I remember when they were like $1.50!), etc., etc. It is all about priorities. Why should someone else have to pay for my child's food because I am unwilling to? Note I didn't say unable - those people need help for sure.

I was recently talking to someone (and for the life of me I can not remember who it was) who told me that when he was a boy (in the 1940s/1950s), families who were receiving monetary assistance from the state would get periodic unannounced home checks to make sure they weren't lying about their financial situation on paper. While I am not advocating for this - I do feel like it is a major invasion of privacy - I think alot of abuse of the system would be prevented this way.

I don't have all of the answers (or even any, really) needed to address this complex topic. However, I have a starting point for many families - as I've said, it's about our priorities.

P to the R to the I to the O to the R to the I to the T to the I to the E to the S! Get 'em, people!

Let's help those that truly need it, but take responsibility for our financial situation - and the basic nutritional health of our children - when we can. -Carrie

Friday, May 27, 2011

Worm Farming 101

At the end of February I attended a vermicomposting workshop in Dallas held by Heather of the Texas Worm Ranch.  As if the name of her company doesn't give it away, vermicomposting is the act of composting through the use of various worms - in Heather's case (and now mine), red wigglers.  The first time I had ever heard about vermicomposting was about 10 years ago when my "kooky" (what I thought at the time - of course, I am now squarely in this category as well!) college roommate listed worms on her wedding registry! 

Believers in vermicomposting/worms list the seemingly endless benefits:
  • Improves soil structure, enriching it with numerous micro-organisms
  • Improves water holding capacity
  • Improves root growth and structure
  • Enhances germination, plant growth, and crop yield
  • One pound of mature worms (appoximately 800-1000 worms) can eat up to 1/2 a pound of organic material per day
  • In a healthy worm bin, the worms and beneficial microbes work together to neutralize odors, making them suitable for indoor use (while up until now we've kept ours outside, I can attest to the fact that I have never once smelled anything untoward upon opening our bin, despite the rotting food inside)
  • Does not produce methane gas
  • Worms can eat most fruits, vegetables, grain waste, manure, leaves, newspaper, cardboard, office paper, junk mail, and other sources of cellulose
  • Converts waste (i.e. worms eat the refuse and poop out castings) into a great organic amendment that's beneficial for gardens, houseplants, and landscaping
There are huge "farms" dedicated solely to composting with worms and then selling the castings as garden fertilizer.  However, it is just as easy for a homeowner (or even apartment dweller!) to have your own worm bin to compost kitchen refuse.  I'd only seriously started thinking about getting worms in the last year, but wondered what was involved in getting started.  Turns out not much!  Other than the cost of the worms (a hefty $25-$30/pound depending on where you purchase them), it is possible to set up your own vermicomposting bin with almost no expense.

Here's what I did, generally following Heather's instructions:
  • Use a 14 inch by 24 inch bin I had on hand (can go smaller or larger)
  • Drill some air holes along the top and a few in the bottom (amazingly, as long as the conditions inside are acceptable, no worms attempt to get out of the bottom holes)
  • Fill bin about 5-6 inches with chicken litter from the coop, compost, or dirt
  • Place 1 pound of red wigglers on top of the dirt section
  • Put a thin layer of food scraps (no meat, dairy, pineapple or papaya, minimal citrus) over the worms (not pictured)
  • Top with another 6 inches of moist shredded newspaper, office paper, or cardboard (not pictured)
  • Snap on top!
  • Add a handful of food every second or third day underneath the paper layer (though I must admit I've gone as long as a week and they've been completely fine)
  • About once every two weeks I took a hose and quickly (and lightly) sprinkled some water on top of the paper layer to keep it moist

 Bin filled with chicken coop litter

 Close-up of litter

Added one pound of Red Wigglers

 Finished product after 12 weeks!  The tiny brown particles are worm poop!  
Castings - black gold.  Perfect to side-dress the veggies or fruits in your garden!

Supposedly 12 weeks is a bit too long to wait to clean out your bin.  Ideally it is done every 8-10 weeks.  I think it would be best (i.e. quickest) to make a simple worm/casting separator screen out of a wooden frame and 1/8 inch wire mesh.  I didn't have one today so I just used a cup and scooped out the castings.  You have to be careful because you will get some worms in the cup - especially small ones.  They'll need to be picked out and put in another holding area as you work through the rest of the bin.  As you work your way down through the castings the worms don't like to be exposed to light - so they quickly retreat into the deeper parts of the bin - making your casting collection easier.  In 1 hour I ended up with a whopping 40 cups (!) of castings/excessively decomposed matter - and I only got through half of the bin!  I proceeded to spread this around my blackberries, cucumbers, zucchini, and my lone (though impressive at 6 feet tall and completely unplanned) volunteer tomato.  I then shoved the remaining worms and decomposed matter to one half of the bin, added about 4 inches of new composted chicken coop litter, shoved the worms/matter back over on top of the new litter, added 4 more inches to the other side, and then spread the worms back over everything.  Added new kitchen refuse to the bin along with some moistened, shredded documents - and we're good to go for the next 8 to 10 weeks!  

Up until now we've kept the bin outside and have had no problems.  However, now that the weather is warming up here in Texas I am sure we'll need to bring it in the house.  The problem is finding a suitable location for this large bin in our already small house.  I may need to break it up into two smaller bins.  The worms are really a no-brainer.  Time will tell if my hour spent today will help yield more impressive vegetables and fruit - my fingers are crossed - but I suspect it will! 

Heather at the Texas Worm Ranch is a wealth of information - it is clear she loves what she does!  Please contact her if you have any questions or want to get started with your own vermicomposting operation.  I'm sure she would be glad to assist you! -Carrie

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Islandwood: An Educational Experience for Little Environmentalists


Seattle- A recent field trip took us to the educational center of IslandWood. A few years ago, Washington state mandated that all 4th, 5th, and 6th graders be educated on the environment. An important side note is that this bill was unfunded. Rising to the call, a non-profit agency created an educational center on 255 acres in the woods of Bainbridge Island.

The following is an exert from their WEBSITE:

More to follow...

History of IslandWood

The Idea

Inspiration for IslandWood came from the land itself, and the knowledge that half of Seattle School District children did not receive overnight outdoor education programs.
Paul and Debbi Brainerd learned in 1997 that over a thousand acres of land were being sold on the south end of Bainbridge Island. Debbi proposed the idea of a children's outdoor education center to teach children about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound region.

IslandWood founder Debbi Brainerd describes the process of creating an outdoor learning center in the Pacific Northwest from the ground up.

The Need

Debbi conducted a six-month feasibility study with Puget Sound teachers and Washington State educational administrators that confirmed the need for such a facility. It was learned that Washington State declared environmental education mandatory in 1990 -- yet no funding for teacher training, student programs, or facilities was ever allocated. Moreover, the feasibility study showed that roughly half of the children from economically challenged communities in Seattle had never participated in a residential outdoor education program -- or spent time outside the city.
In 1998, an educational study called Closing the Achievement Gap was released that became the basis for IslandWood's educational vision and philosophy. This study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust examined models of learning in children and showed that by taking children outside the classroom, by focusing on actively doing rather than reading or being lectured to, children's academic performance goes up in every discipline. In math and science scores went up by over 90%, and discipline problems decreased while attendance increased. This research inspired our desire for IslandWood to become a model for how all learning should happen.

Learning from Others

At the end of 1998, 255 acres of land were purchased by the Brainerds from Port Blakely Tree Farms and donated to the new nonprofit now known as IslandWood. The planning then began in earnest as to the best way to create an educational center that could be a "magical place for kids."
Two years of research followed, with community meetings involving over 2,500 people. Focus groups conducted with teachers, scientists, artists, technologists and cultural historians supported expanding educational programs to include weekend adult and family programs. Additionally, teachers expressed a strong need for professional development opportunities in art, science and technology.
Debbi made visits to over 25 other outdoor education facilities in the United States. Visiting exemplary programs such as the Teton Science School in WY, Wolf Ridge in MN and Frost Valley in NY, provided a collective best practices model around facility design and program. Attending a Graduate Program Conference at the Teton Science School, discussions began with the University of Washington that confirmed a decision to offer a 10- month residential graduate program at IslandWood. Using the model of the research Closing the Achievement Gap, the graduate curriculum would focus on giving future educators the skills they needed to reach more children through an experiential, hands-on model of learning.
Scientists and other educators were then brought to the property to discern what educational "stories" could be taught from the land. Biologists were thrilled by the property's rich variety of ecosystems: 62 acres of wetlands, a bog, second growth forest, a stream, and access to a marine estuary in Blakely Harbor adjacent to the property. Cultural historians were excited by the stories of the largest mill in the world that once operated in Blakely Harbor, as well as the history of the Suquamish tribe who had used this land for many years before the arrival of the white settlers.

The Vision Becomes Reality

Mithun architects and The Berger Partnership designed the educational structures, trail systems and outdoor field structures with the help of kids. University of Washington landscape architecture students worked with over 250 children in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in design charrettes, to learn what their ideals would be for learning in the natural world. The children's ideas focused on adventure-based learning, with their design ideas generating specifics like a floating classroom, suspension bridge, forest canopy structure and several tree houses.
Fund raising began in 1999. The total project cost was $52 million: $5 million to acquire the land, $32 million for construction and site infrastructure, $10 million for an operations endowment, and $5 million to establish a scholarship endowment for children from underserved communities. The Brainerds provided half of the campaign goal, and the additional $26 million was raised from the community. The campaign was successfully completed in 2005.
The official groundbreaking for the center was held in the summer of 2000. With construction nearly completed in spring 2002, pilot programs were conducted to test the four-day program for 4th and 5th graders. The teachers and kids who attended provided reviews about the quality of the educational experience, with comments like "this isn't a camp it's a school with real teachers" and "this experience wasn't about recreation it was about learning - only they made it fun!"


Kids, adults, families, and teachers are now currently learning from the land, and the team of IslandWood faculty and staff is making what once was a vision come to life!
IslandWood's dedication to the community through lifelong learning, education by hands-on learning, and its commitment to stewardship shows what can happen when people work together.
Today IslandWood targets approximately two-thirds of its students from schools on free and reduced lunch programs for its School Overnight Program. Proceeds from other IslandWood programs and special events help support these efforts by providing scholarships for those who need financial assistance. It is our goal to allow all children to be able to have an IslandWood experience.
Moving into its ninth year of operation, IslandWood continues to expand its reach into the community. Here are a few highlights:
  • Over 4,000 school children from over seventy schools in the Puget Sound area participated in IslandWood programs
  • Over 5,000 community members visited the campus through our community events, conferences and leadership programs
  • Over 50,000 households in the Puget Sound area learned valuable lessons in stewardship by viewing our cultural history films
  • Over 6,000 hours of service to IslandWood were provided by our growing base of docents and volunteers
  • Over 200 teachers participated in professional development programs at IslandWood to increase their effectiveness in the classroom

Monday, May 23, 2011

Trashing Your Trash: How Seattle Handles Waste

A school trip recently brought me to the wonderful city of Seattle. There are a couple of things that us Texans could learn from the Seattlites in terms of attitude and culture towards sustainability. A garden in the front yard is not that foreign here, bicycles roam the streets like wild cats in my neighborhood, and even the trash is a little greener. That's right. They have green trash.

The first time I saw it, I thought it to be a fluke. The second, a coincidence. The third, I knew they were on to something. I've said for sometime the best way to get people to recycle is to make it as convenient as throwing something away. Seattle has been placing recycling bins next to their trash cans for eons. What I found unique to the blue and black bins was a green one.... A compost bin. Yes, now you have the option, at least in Seattle, to compost your food instead of tossing it in the trash. What a concept.

Education about the environment is a priority here. More on that to come. For now, HERE is an educational game geared towards kids, but don't let that fool you. I learned a couple of things myself. It only take a couple of minutes to play. Enjoy. -Jason

Thornless Blackberry Update

Back in early March I wrote a post about planting 4 thornless blackberries in our front yard (here). With all of our shade, and the fact that I only planted 1 gallon plants in late January, I wasn't expecting more than a berry or two per plant. In the comments section of that post Dallas Fruit Grower wrote, " I'm betting that you get a crop this year" - and I'm sarcastically thinking, "Yeah, right, guy. What do you know?!? If by crop you mean 2 berries/plant, then yes, I will probably get a crop...." Well I am now officially thornless blackberry's biggest fan (and Dallas Fruit Grower's biggest believer)! I ended up getting a minimum of about 20 large berries per plant - and these babies aren't even a foot tall! At one point there were about 40 flowers per plant. We started harvesting the berries in mid April - which was also much sooner than I had expected. There are now only a few berries left on one of the plants. But all four bushes have already begun to put on new growth. I can. not. wait. for next years harvest! FYI - the pictures below were taken on May 5th. -Carrie

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Harvesting Garlic

On May 5th, as I looked out over the garden, I had a sudden sinking feeling in my chest. The garlic I had so lovingly purchased from the local Hispanic grocer - diligently separated, peeled, and planted on October 1, 2010 - was starting to turn brown and fall over. All these months I had it in my head that garlic was like onions - you pull one to two weeks after the tops have fallen. Or at least that's my understanding of the onion harvest. However, as I surveyed the fruits of my 6 months of labor that fateful Thursday morning, some remote memory kicked in and I realized garlic is supposed to be harvested after the first 6 leaves start to wither - not the entire plant! Knowing if I didn't get a move-on my precious garlic would rot where I planted it (if it hadn't already!), I sprang into action.

Garlic screaming "Harvest Me!"

The photo below shows my first ever garlic harvest. Twenty-three out of twenty-four cloves survived - not bad! And by the looks of those bulbs I think I harvested just before it was too late. Nine of them were starting to rot. While the inner cloves were all intact, the outer protective covering was completely obliterated from being in the ground too long. Obviously these nine will have to be the first we eat as they won't store long at all. The rest appear to be in pretty good shape.

Bulbs on the left starting to rot; bulbs on the right in good shape

Close-up of damaged bulbs

Uber-close-up of damaged bulbs

Good bulbs

Best bulb, a nice plump 2.5-incher, next to rotting bulb

Informative juxtaposition...read more below

Perhaps the most interesting discovery is shown in the picture above. On the left is "Big Bertha" - our best bulb, planted on 10/1/10 from a regular grocery store clove (no idea what variety). To the right is a Chinese Pink Softneck bulb, and the two at the end are both Spanish Rioja Hardnecks. The three smaller bulbs were planted 7 weeks later than the run-of-the-mill bulb. They were graciously sent to me by Dallas Fruit and Vegetable Grower. I am assuming the size discrepancy is due mainly to the 7 week difference in planting time. Another possibility is that most of the cloves I planted on 11/23 were cast-offs or smaller cloves that DFVG just didn't need. I've read that it is best to plant the largest cloves possible when planting garlic, and I did do this with the grocery store set. I bought five bulbs but only planted about 2/3 of the cloves in them. Went for the largest & plumpest I could find. I'm going to give the Chinese & Spanish bulbs a few more weeks, but these too are beginning to wither away in the soil. I've learned alot from my first garlic growing season, first and foremost being to get the cloves in the ground earlier rather than later - and don't forget about them once they're in there! -Carrie

Thursday, May 5, 2011

We are Alive!

Hi everyone! Yes, indeed, we are alive. School is almost done for the semester and we can finally breathe a bit.  I hope to post here again two to three times a week through the summer at least... 

A few weeks ago Jason got a thank-you card from a friend.  I got a big kick out of it.  I'd say she knows us pretty well.....

Love it!  We're up to, well actually I guess you'd say "down to", 19 chickens.  Three "barn bantams" and 16 black sex links.  The black sex links include fifteen of the "babies" we got in early February (we sold 11) and one of our original three hens - Nellie.  The babies are almost 13 weeks old, and we're hoping within the next 1-2 months they'll start laying.  When that happens we will probably find a new home for the bantams, as their eggs are smaller and in general their egg production is not nearly as consistent as the sex-links.  I'll do a post soon on our babies.  They are now bigger than the bantams!  And very sweet since they were raised by hand.  This process definitely has made us converts to raising chicks ourselves versus buying full-grown adults hens.  They are far more friendly - not afraid of us in the least.  Almost all of them love to be held and petted.  It's pretty cool.

On a related note:
 This pleases me greatly....