Saturday, April 30, 2011

How to build a pergola in 417 easy steps!

What's that? You wanted to know how to build a pergola in "3" easy steps? For that you should try youtube - which oddly enough actually has how-to-build videos on dang near everything.

I know because I've watched about 37 of them on the topic of outdoor shade structures.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my goal was to build a dog wall and while I was at it, I thought I should also use those same wall posts to create some people pleasing areas...and I love hammocks.

Dear friends of ours who moved to Maryland gave us their two person hammock as a going away gift. I had planned to string it between two trees at the cabin until a combination of bark beetles and ice storms felled the hammock hanging trees.

I've since replanted those trees but they are still babies and would have trouble supporting a hammock for hummingbirds.

But a pergola is a perfect spot to hang a hammock...

Do you remember the Energizer Bunny ads? My friend Diane shares a similar source of boundless energy. Right after the jack-hammer party she asked me if I had the posts and concrete handy.
Here's Diane and her sweet dog Shyanne taking a rare break.

When I said yes, she declared that we should set them in the ground immediately...and a man made redwood forest of posts was born.

We were moving so fast to put in posts and pour concrete before dark that I didn't have time to take process pictures.

The next day, everyone except me went flying over the desert so I built all the dog walls by myself. Everything was down low and accessible so by the time I made it to the last wall, I had a system finally figured out for leveling the dang things. The ground of course is not level and is graded away from the house...which I knew intellectually but forgot about as I was building the walls and watching the space underneath get bigger and bigger...

I also developed a system for de-sapping myself. Personally I think the reason they named the wood Douglas Fir was that some guy named Douglas ended up covered in fur when fuzz stuck to all the sap he got on himself chopping down the tree. Yes, I am making that up - I'm Canadian by birth - lumberjack fantasies are part of my heritage.
Goo Gone is the secret ingredient for sap removal...that and rubbing off your skin.

The next morning, Jay and Diane (who are both taller than me) and Shyanne (who isn't) came back to help me do the high-up construction aspects of this project.

We started with the gate tops. I had envisioned a mock trellis to frame the gate opening on either side of the courtyard. I also envisioned that we'd use the post from one side of the gate to help support the pergolas...unfortunately I didn't communicate that design plan very well and we accidentally cut the post too short.

You can't see the cut post because Dave is blocking it qith his head. We are stappling the bamboo roof on the new tiki hut shelter.

When you operate at my skill level, flexibility is the key to prevent crying so we quickly regrouped and decided a slanted roof would make a more visually interesting structure anyway.

Then we decided to through some bamboo fencing on top and the whole thing took on a Gilligan's Island sort of feel. Now hadn't planned to go Hawaiian - in fact, I think I was trying for a desert southwest feel but who am I to stand in the way of tiki ones that actually flicker! They're so cool!

Back to the pergola construction...the second gate opening went up quickly and we were all on the same page for post height this time. We cut the trellis post ends to match the cross-beam style and were finished in no time! It was the perfect spot for my hammock. I could lay back and look at the lake...well actually I couldn't quite see the lake because once I was laying down, the edge of our hill blocked my view dang it!

A perfect spot for a hammock!

So I decided to carve away the hill. It seemed like such a simple idea at the time...move a few rocks, shovel away some dirt (screening out the rocks so I could use it to plant in) and presto! Unobstructed view!

Can you tell that this dirt is really as hard as concrete?

So 17,365 tablespoons of dirt later (I say tablespoons rather than shovel-fulls because the hill is made of concrete-like dirt and so many rocks that each time I slammed in my shovel, I got about a tablespoon of dirt). I was able to lower the hill by 18 inches and increase the walkway by 2 feet before my chiropractic bills prevented me from continuing further.

I mention the 18 inch drop and the 2 feet walkway gain because if I don't, it's quite likely you would never notice the change...Dave didn't and he is still sleeping on the couch.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You're invited to my "Jack-hammer Party"!

Can't make it? I'm not surprised - turns out a lot of people are "busy" when you throw certain kinds of themed parties...

Let me back up a bit.

We have two darling Chihuahuas. One is sweet and stays right by my side (mostly) and the other one has a wanderlust that would rival Marco Polo's.

Huckleberry is the white one - don't be fooled by Golly's innocent posture - he's guilty!

Huckleberry is the homebody. Golly is the escape artist - he's older than dirt in dog years (16 in people years) and yet he still has the stealth of a wily cat and the speed of a tiny greyhound.

He puts these skills to use about 3 times a week.

Imagine me out hunting for him in my slippers (this morning it was in my socks)...calling "Golly" at the top of my lungs. The neighbors must think I'm terminally surprised.

We live in coyote country so each of these searches is fraught with a genuine fear of finding his remains mixed with a tiny sense of "he almost deserves to be eaten for all the trouble he causes".

The emotional toll is significant - enough in fact that we decided that an enclosed backyard was essential to our family's mental health. Dave envisioned some sort of low fence that would keep the dogs in. I had grander plans...

Of course, I needed to make a model which meant the first step was to measure our backyard. Then we could make a scale drawing of what we already had in terms of elevation changes, plantings, and irrigation. Luckily Dave has vast experience in measuring for traffic accident investigations which is oddly fitting for my projects.

One of the many scale drawings I used for planning.

Then I had to make a 3D scale model out of foam core to see how my ideas would work. I even used plastic foliage to help with tree placement.
I swear - making the model is half the fun!
Here's the backyard modeled in its "before" state.

Here's the "after" model looking westward.

The "after" model looking east.

Here's the view from the model's kitchen window to help with tree placement.

Now, professional landscape designers create plans that conform to the clients' tastes and certain design aesthetics. I am not a professional so I make my designs conform to the spots where it's easiest to dig.

By "easiest" I mean "away from irrigation lines that would have to be repaired" (not my strong suit) and "thorny foliage" (some plants in the desert are really poky).

To my credit I wisely called Arizona Blue Stake to make sure I knew where the underground utilities were located.

Turns out the ground is so dang hard here, the majority of the utility companies avoid the backyard entirely. Except for the phone/cable company who solved the concrete-like earth problem by laying lines on top of the ground and then sort of covering them with rocks. 

They even helpfully sprayed the lines with orange paint in case the large black wires I routinely trip over escaped my notice.

Having dug a 2 foot deep mailbox hole by myself in just under 3 hours and 2 chiropractor visits, the thought of digging the 11 holes required for the new dog wall posts was enough to drive me straight to the Vodka bottle.

That is until a neighbor mentioned that he had a jack-hammer he could loan us. Of course, he'd been consuming some adult beverages himself at the time and so also said he'd be willing to show us how to use the dang thing. (Somehow digging and alcohol go hand in hand in Arizona).

And so the idea of my "Jack-Hammer Party" was born.

I invited about 20 people to the event and was only slightly amazed at the number of folks who had scheduled haircuts and pedicures for that very same afternoon...strange.

But the 7 who did show up were FANTASTIC!

We had Jessie using the jack-hammer (he did let Dave try but after a few minutes of watching Dave's efforts he took over the operation in the interest of time).
Here's Dave trying to learn Jessie's jack-hammer technique.

Ken and Brian were on the bucket and shovel team with Dave - scooping out dirt and rocks as fast as Jessie could loosen them.

Jay and Diane were with me on the dry sluice-box making planting dirt by separating out all the rocks.
Jay and Diane working the rock-screening tray.

In less time (and alcohol) than it took me to dig the mailbox post hole, we had 11 holes dug and post-ready!!!

Fortunately, there was only one injury during the operation; Ellen stepped into one of our freshly dug holes - she provided moral support and professional photography from the bench during the party.
Ellen and her camera.
I - quite simply - have the best friends and neighbors a person could ever hope for!


Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Very Own Canadian Sweatshop

Like many, I can always tell when "spring has sprung" by reading the natural environment.

I'm not talking about the appearance of tender shoots of green or tiny buds poking their little heads through the frozen earth. I'm talking about the patio displays at Home Depot and Walmart.

Their bright canvas colors pop up out of the aisles like oddly shaped daffodils. And just as daffodils bring thoughts of warmer weather, brand new patio sets inspire thoughts of cool drinks and fat novels on lazy afternoons.


Of course, their brand new price tags are not quite so lazily afforded so I decided to see what could be done with my current patio furniture.

In comparison to the freshly blooming chaises at Walmart, my little fake wicker settee was looking pretty sad. I'd foolishly washed the "washable" covers not realizing that "washable outdoor fabric" actually means they can barely endure a gentle dab with a wet napkin.

Spinning them through the delicate cycle of a washing machine causes them to completely fray at their would think the manufacturer would mention that wouldn't you?

Then again, white was probably not the best color choice for a piece of furniture that sits outside all year either.

Since the frame and cushions were basically in good condition (having not been washed) I thought I could recover them.

Why are pillows always so much larger outside of their cases?
I don't know if you have shopped for outdoor fabric lately (or ever) but it's expensive. In fact, it's common for it to range from $25-75 PER YARD!


My theory is that it costs extra because they have to infuse it with that chemical that causes it to disintegrate in the washing machine.

But, lady Luck was on my side because I was headed up to Las Vegas where they have the headquarters for an upholstery fabric outlet. AND they just so happen to have an outdoor fabric remnant section where prices range from $3-10 a yard (much more affordable in my book).

Lady Luck was even kinder to me as the reason I was headed to Vegas was to pick up my sister who was flying in from Canada...and she sews.

Now most upholstered cushions are made in Chinese sweatshops these days. From what I've heard on the news, their conditions are deplorable. Seamstresses toil hour after hour for lousy pay in inhumane conditions.

By the time we were done sewing the pillow covers for my settee, my sister was probably wishing she was working in a Chinese sweatshop. I had her cutting fabric on a hard tile floor and working for zero pay.

She does look happy though...

And the results made me happy!
But she did get to enjoy the results with a cold drink and a fat novel.

Drink and novel not pictured here.