A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for Gardening

Playing in the Rain: Creating Garden Spaces

As my wife and I are speaking to my son, my daughter comes running past in a determined way that toddler’s have. My wife calls out to her, so she stops to look at us with a mischievous grin. She is heading for the water heater again. There is something about the knobs that fascinate her. I tell her to come back toward us, so off she goes running to the back door.

Outside papa, outside? The rain is pouring, but she loves playing out in the garden. No flower is safe from her grasp or demand. Since I have been spending so much time in the back yard, I have been putting more effort into creating spaces for family. My daughter is constantly in the sand, but she has created a cathedral for herself in some hibiscus bushes. I have different seating areas for reading and relaxing, but lying in the grass suits me.

To make the scene more pleasing to the eye, especially because of the flowers not being safe, I have been looking for plants that have interesting leaves, particularly ones with color. At the nursery, I discovered the aftershocks of the drop in housing sales: plants without a home. Garden centers typically try to sell the flowering shrubs when they are in bloom, since they appeal more to homeowners at that time. I found a large selection of azaleas which had not been sold, so now they were on a 30% discount. There were other plants at lower prices too. You will not have the blooms till next year, but they still will look nice till then.

This picture is not yet complete, but I thought I would share it with you anyway. My daughter\'s play gardenWe have this old tree casting a great deal of shade in this corner of the garden. We decided to set up a playhouse for my daughter. The garden around the house consists mainly of ferns, but we have some hostas, hyacinths, azaleas, impatiens, as well as some indoor plants. We used rocks for a mulch. I am going to create a porch for the shed with white limestone, and I still have to fix up the seating area. We have a fence, but we bought a bamboo screen for this section to help create a nicer effect. I am still working on the sculptures for this area, so we will see what happens. It is not much yet, but I think it will be a nice spot to hang out.

Check your local garden center, and you may find a deal too. I am planning for my project in the backyard to continue, so I will not have the expense all at once. By doing a little each week, you come to be attached to this space, and then you will use your property to its fullest.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A Sea of Plants: Choosing the Right One for Your Garden

Can you tell who is getting ready to sell their home? I have found that there are two common signs: a lot of trash from remodelling sitting on the curb and flowers in the garden. As I am driving to the hardware store for a tail pipe to fix my sink and new door hardware for my daughter’s room, I count four houses readying to go onto the market. I would prefer to have my home looking good for me, rather than the next owner, but we are creatures of habit. Make the old look new again to encourage the sale.

I inspected two houses which were both built in 2004 this past week. Neither had gardens to speak of, and certainly no trees. Both homes were foreclosures. I wonder if the former owners ever really enjoyed their lives there, but some people do not find pleasure in the garden as I do. My week was spent helping an owner prepare her home for sale, instead of in my own garden. At least, I was still playing in the dirt of a garden. In this couple’s case, their garden consisted of plants that were easily dealt with every week, but nothing stood out with a beautiful bloom.

She asked me to go to the garden center with her to pick out some plants. We drove over to the Houston Garden Center, and I was impressed to see such a sea of plants. I prefer Cornielius Nursery myself, but this place does have some good deals on the most common choices. My client asked about the plant with a spike with a blue ball for a flower. She meant agapanthus, which she wanted in a shady spot. This is the main problem with plant placement that I see. Plants come with tags that state if they should be in the sun or shade. The rule of thumb is you could safely go down on sunlight a bit from the stated guide line (sun to partial sun), but a plant marked for sun will not do well in shade.

How much shade do you have in any one spot though? There are days that I spend most of the day in my garden. I have chairs and benches in many different spots, so I can pick the best place to read at a given time. I watch how the sun plays across the ground during the course of the day. Most of us may not have the desire to spend a day in the garden, or we may not have the means. There is a device that can be set in a garden bed for a day, so you can see how much light you are actually getting. Some plots that you may think of as deep shade could actually be partial shade, or may even qualify for partial sun. These labels will also change from month to month, since the sun changes position.

Do not wait to create the home that you want for the next person. Let it be for you. I do a little bit in the garden each week, but if you did a little each month, you will find after some time that you will have your own little paradise.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Dining Out: A Garden Adventure 

Sometimes I feel that I have not done much in the garden, but when I look back on the week, I find that I did accomplish a bit. I have been walking through my gardens each day to see what might need some help, which is a nice way to nip things in the bud before they become major problems. The cool morning air today was such a relief from the humidity that we have been experiencing. My wife bristled at the chill, running back inside for a sweater. It was not that bad, but I love the chill.

Most of my efforts have been directed towards cleaning up the appearance of the beds. The azaleas have stopped their blooms, so it is a perfect time to trim them back. I do not want these bushes to be overgrown. My Aztec Sweet Herb has run amok, spilling over the edging, as have various groundcovers that are substituting for mulch in certain beds. I pruned them back to the edging for a manicured look, which helps with the fact that my small meadow in the backyard can seem unkempt. Deadheading the roses has helped keep these flowers in bloom. My toddler daughter has been picking flowers from plants within her reach. She has become fascinated with the eggplants though. She has come to realize that these fruits have thorns at their base to prevent being pulled off, so she drags me to these plants every day for assistance. Eggplants do not have a bitter taste when freshly picked. She has been after the peppers too. This caused
me to make a dish with these two ingredients for dinner last night.

Like many people, my family has not dined out too often recently. We were having a good family day yesterday, and we thought that it would be nice to spend the day enjoying each other’s company by going out. We considered where we may go to eat. We thought of buying a shwarma from Phoenicia for a picnic in the park. We were not in town for the opening of the Discovery Green park in downtown, and there are scheduled events each weekend, so we thought that might be a nice option. In the end, we decided that I could make some sausages, with some bread and fruit.

Plans go awry. My son had more homework than expected, and my daughter wanted her nap. We found ourselves on the front lawn. I am glad that so many flowers were on display in my beds. The jasmine scented the air, as did my antique roses. We waved to neighbors, and played with a frisbee and ball. Finally we could dine out, and not worry about the mess that a one year old girl will make with her food. My wife laughed as I scurried off to pick nasturtium, onion and shallot greens, or some other herb for my bread. She complained that I was not growing mint for her mojitos. I mentioned that she was sitting on it. The mint had escaped the bed into the lawn where she was. Oh, is that why I smelled mint, she asked. Complain first, eh? You should learn to recognize your favorite herb was my reply.

There are times when you do not need to do much in the garden, except to enjoy it. The news today reported that the rising cost of rice is causing problems for restaurants and consumers. Food costs have increased, but enjoying life does not need to be determined by the purchase. Just by the fun that you have.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Love the Butterfly, Hate the Caterpillar

A bright yellow lace fluttering through my line of sight, seemingly
pushed by the slightest movement of the air
. My family is having dessert on the front lawn, on this beautiful, cool evening. My wife is over talking to the woman who just had twins, while my son contemplates his escape on a bike. My daughter and I follow the path of this fairy. There seem to be a few
butterflies staying around the house, attracted by some of the flowers here. I probably like watching the dragonflies more, but butterflies are wondrous creatures.

However, this is an aspect of this creature that I despise: the caterpillar. You cannot have one without the other, but I do long for my
vegetables and other plants to be spared from these ravenous beasts. You may not have thought about this fact, but you may have many edible plants in your gardens that you look upon as ornamentals. Kale is one such plant, that is popular in this regard. There are other plants, like gingers, which are quite tasty to these voracious eaters, so you can easily find that the colorful foliage that you have prized is being eaten away.

My first step is to never turn to pesticides. My children have grown up eating directly from the vegetable beds, so I do not want a poison there for them to ingest. I try taking these pests off of my plants by hand to throw them away. I have also used a method of interplanting various species of plants, so I do not have a monoculture. The butterflies sometimes pass by plants to lay their eggs, because they are misdirected by the other plants, or at the very least, I do not have all of my plants of one type attacked. I spread cedar mulch today. The scent is said to drive insects away, like the cedar used in your closets. I have used this before, and it has worked, but in the past, I found that this mulch was expensive. The price has come down, so it is around the same cost as other hardwood mulches. Be sure you are buying cedar and not cypress mulch. If these counter measures have not succeeded, I turn to BT (bacillus thurengensis). It does not effect humans, but it will wreak havoc on caterpillars.

There are a few other organic solutions , like a soap and water spray, but the above steps have worked for me. If you are interested in other means to control some pests in your garden (and you are in Houston), I should direct you to Southwest Fertilizer on Bissonnet. They have the whole gamut of supplies for your garden at good prices. I have found that staff to be knowledgeable about the products, so they can help find the right concoction for your problem. They have good vegetables for sale too. I particularly like the fact that I can obtain organic fertilizers in bulk here at a good price.

Enjoy your butterflies, but let the caterpillars plague someone else, or just on spot of your garden, set aside for them.

Found Treasures from Spring Cleaning

A few years ago, I came across a man who was storing many odds and ends around his shed. His wife was dismayed, but he was pulling in more stuff for his collection. I was a little baffled as to why he would need to save some of these things, and my questioning of this habit led him to take me on a short drive. He showed me a house that had even more items scattered about. He said that the man there had told him that whoever has the most stuff when he dies wins, and he has taken that message to heart.

Most of us do not add to our collections to such a degree, but I seem to be quite a collector myself. I have noticed that over the past few weeks that my neighbors have been taking care of some spring cleaning, which has caused the amount of treasures on the road side to increase. I saw a nice coffee table being left for the garbage men today. It just needed to be refinished. I am not against re-using quite a few items that I see, and I have picked up an object or two. My office suite was obtained at little cost. A firm was moving into one facility, so they were getting rid of the older furniture. I showed up with a U-haul truck to see what I could buy, and the foreman said that I can take what I want for free.

My son has been infected with this trait. Last week he comes home with a nice patio umbrella frame made out of teak. He set about creating a stand for it, and now we need to buy some fabric for it. I am creating some seats from wood planks that were given to me. Some paint and refinishing and we will have a comfortable seating area. In fact, many pieces in my garden are recycled bits. An old bench was repaired and painted, and the glass ball for a lamp has become a garden ball (with a little spray paint) . The shade has become a birdhouse with a little work.

Cleaning supplies, paint, and stain have worked wonders with many older goods. What I really wonder is why these former owners do not do the same? Or why not donate to Goodwill or some other charity? I have been bringing items to Goodwill twice a year for the past few years. Most of the items are not mine. For me it just makes sense to reuse something if possible rather than throwing it into the dump. I see my neighbor is now throwing away old garden furniture, since she has updated her patio. I will go and see if she will let me take to a charity instead. I do not want to win by having the most stuff, but I would like to see some consideration for the stuff we have.

A Trellis for My Vine

This is probably one of the few times of the year that I really enjoy the weather in Houston. Cool mornings and warm afternoons seem to be good for the plants too. I already have tomatoes, and the peppers, peas, onions, herbs, and others have been giving me much to cook with.

Flowers are coming into bloom. My roses are giving off a light scent by my front door, but I am waiting for the jasmine. I wonder why more people are not allowing flowering annuals to grace their beds. I think that such blooms encourage you to spend more time out doors. My daughter is taking the flowers and strewing them across the den flower, so my wife is loathe to show her the brilliant blue clematis that just came into its own. One of my favorite spots is to sit under a canopy of bougainvilleas which I am training across some wires.

I think that vines can create some remarkable images in the garden by having them grow over entrances or patios, but I feel that many people believe that you need to go and buy a fancy trellis for this task. I have never purchased an arbor or trellis, since the vines will cover the structure any way. My jasmine is growing on tomato cages that have wires creating a ball on top. My wife saw a iron structure that created a mushroom like object for the vines to climb. It cost about $200 each. We made our four for around $20, and no one can see the structure the vines are resting on. I have made arbors from the prunings of my crepe myrtle tree, as well as other trees. I have run wires from the fascia of my house to a painted 1×2 board held up with galvanized tubes to have vines grow over a patio. I have even used parts from an old mattress to create an arbor. Usually, I paint everything one color: black. When the vines have not grown far enough to enclose my impromptu frames, guests only register black wires, so they do not take a closer look. Once the vines are mature, no one notices what is holding them up.

Be creative, and you may find that there is a way that you can cheaply create the framework and structures of your garden.

A Plant in a Bag, or Water Conservation Made Easy

Along with expanding the areas where I have vegetables in the garden, I am experimenting with a few different methods in the garden this year. Even though Texas officially ended its drought last year, water conservation is still on my mind. After ten years of drought, I think it wise to stay prepared for the next one.

I had read about a technique developed for residents in drought stricken parts of Africa. A growing medium, like our potting soil, is placed in a canvas bag. Holes are slit into the bag for plants to be inserted into the bag. The growing medium is moistened before planting, and it can be furthered watered by an opening. The moistened growing medium does not dry out to fast since the canvas bag holds the moisture in.

I made my own growing medium form perlite, vermiculite, peat moss, and compost, and I decide to try out two types of bags. One is a canvas bag, but the other is a plastic bag with a thick wall (so heavy plastic). I have five bags placed on a stand that I made from some spare lumber. I wanted the bags to be off of the ground for some protection from snails, but I am sure they will find their way up. I am thinking of taking the experiment a bit further by painting the bags. It has been shown that certain plants will respond to plastic mulches of different colors.

It is definitely a clean way to garden. The soil stays in one spot. No mulches blowing around the yard. I think that it will be interesting to see if this method does conserve water from other methods that I use, like heavy mulching.