Tag Archives: grass

Carburetors are Black Magic

For those of you not familiar with history there was a time when gasoline powered engines of all stripes did not easily start on the first attempt and, depending on the weather, required a particular dance to maintain a smooth idle.  Before electronic fuel injection made our lives easier by eliminating carburetors from our lexicon we were forced to adjust chokes to fine tune a fuel air mixture and worry about things like jets getting gummed up with deposits from gasoline.

Anyone who waxes nostalgic for the days of carburetors is either lying, has no idea what a carburetor actually does, or enjoys spending afternoons swearing at small brass tubes with small holes punctured in them.  I am going to posit that most people are in the first group.

Carburetors are like black magic.  Somehow this crude assemblage of bulbs, floats, jets, needles, and what not is capable of mixing fuel and air into the appropriate ration to ensure combustion in our small engines.  On most modern small engines the manual choke has been eliminated in favor of automatic chokes using a variety of bi-metal arms to ensure operation.

When it is spring time and you wander out to garage and the mower does not start.  Is it the spark plug?  Maybe, considering my spark plug looked like this compared to a brand new spark plug:


A few minutes with a 5/8” socket yielded…nothing.  The same sad burble as before.  Maybe the engine was not getting any air?  Given the condition of my old air filter that would not be unthinkable:


Less than thirty seconds later I got…nothing.  This is the point when most people give up and load the mower for a trip to the small engine shop.  I come at this from a slightly different school of thought that says, “If you can’t fix it, you do not really own it.”  Some take that to mean that you have the option of having the item repaired by a professional as opposed to the item being essentially disposable.  While this is a laudable goal for all products, I want to control a little bit more of my destiny.

When your mower will not “turn over” in the spring try this trick.  Remove the air filter and spray some starter fluid directly into the air intake.  If your mower starts, but dies after a few turns of the crank it likely means that there is a problem with your carburetor.  This, dear friends, is within the skill set of a decently mechanical person, especially given excellent videos like this one on YouTube.

Here’s the deal.  I do not really understand how carburetors work, but I can take the thing apart, clean out some gunk, and put it all back together again.  I do not need to understand the method of operation very well to complete that task.  It’s still black magic to me.  The carburetor in my mower was covered in all kinds of filth.  The bulb where the gasoline goes before being mixed with air looked like the inside of a forgotten Brita filter.  The jets were clogged with a residue reminiscent of Slimer.  No wonder the mower refused to work.

Less than twenty minutes of time with a 10mm socket, a Torx set, and a can of carburetor cleaner left me with hands that smelled of various petrochemicals, a serious mountain of dirty paper towels, and a mower that fired up on the first try.  I have not touched the inner workings of a small engine since my senior year of high school, which was more than twenty years ago.

I detail this not to beat my chest—okay a little chest beating is in order—but to suggest that the skills and knowledge to repair a lot of the stuff in our lives is well within our reach.  We do not to call someone to repair everything that breaks and we do not need to buy new things every time something breaks.  We bought it, so if we break it we should learn how to repair it.


Hardscaping for the Future

In my yard I have a lot of trees. At the current count, which is going to change soon as I add a few more in various spots to finish my mini arboretum, I have thirteen trees representing six different species of tree. The downside is that all of the trees “required” some form of hardscaping around the base to provide protection from lawn mowers or string trimmers and to break up the monotony of the grass carpet called a lawn. I know that it is un-American to suggest this but vast landscapes of green grass are just boring.

Building planting beds around a tree also gave me an opportunity to bring some color into my yard and increase the water storage capacity of the soil through amendments. It’s not sexy, but if your soil can hold more water you will be thankful when the late summer temperatures start creeping up and nary a rain cloud is on the horizon.

Not long after we moved into our new house I moved the original street tree, so named because it is a required tree planted between the sidewalk and street, to the backyard. It was a boring autumn blaze elm that had been planted on every other house lot on the street. As if we had not learned from the over reliance on single species of trees with the onset of Dutch elm disease and the invasion of the emerald ash borer.

The maple just kind of got stuck in the backyard:

Tree Ring BeforeBoring. After about four hours of hacking through turfgrass, which had me questioning the logic of mowing my grass so high since the roots extend an equidistant amount below the surface making easy removal impossible, I was able to finally place the heavy rocks that formed the tree ring seen below:

Tree Ring AfterThe soil, which in my backyard is as sandy as a beach when you dig past the layer of top soil, was amended with coconut coir. A lot of people in eastern Iowa use peat moss as a soil amendment, but that comes with a whole host of environmental concerns related to the destruction of peat bogs for our gardens. Not gonna’ happen. Coconut coir is a byproduct of coconut production so it has fewer concerns about sustainability outside of the transportation costs. Regardless, it is a great way to increase the moisture carrying capability of sandy soils.

The real difference maker is the plants. I wanted to create a puzzle of color with low maintenance and drought tolerant plants. In a world potentially impacted by climate change—e.g. hotter and drier summers for those of us in eastern Iowa—we need to be very conscious about what we plant in our landscapes to ensure long term viability and resiliency.

I went with nine plants—three of each variety—to fill in the space. The plants are a “Purrsian Blue” catmint, dianthus “Kahori,” and “Desert Eve” yarrow.

The other benefit of all of these plants is that the pollinators seem to already love the little garden. Just the other day I saw at least three bees buzzing around. Gotta’ help the pollinators.

Friday Linkage 11/14/2014

You want to talk about winter? It arrived with a bang this week. Near sixty degrees and pleasant on Monday and it plunged into the teens with a nice brisk wind by Wednesday. Now it’s Friday and people are consigned to have the parkas out until spring. At least Ullr was nice and dropped fresh powder in Breckenridge.

On to the links…

SeaWorld Earnings PLUMMET As Outrage Over Orca Treatment Grows—SeaWorld is hurting. The documentary Blackfish is killing them in the public sphere and people are voting with their feet by not coming to the park in numbers. So much so that the company had to admit as much in its earnings release. Keep up the pressure folks. It’s working.

Voters In 19 States Just Committed More Than $13 Billion For Conservation—The mid-term election was a disaster from some perspectives, but ballot initiatives in 19 states set aside some serious money for land conservation.

Climate Tools Seek to Bend Nature’s Path—Be wary of geo-engineering and the promise of being able to continue in a business as usual mode with regard to our changing the climate. Sounds like snake oil to me.

Fossil Fuels Reap $550 Billion in Subsidies, Hindering Renewables Investment—Do you want to know why there are not solar panels on everyone’s house in the world? Because fossil fuels suck up billions of dollars in subsidies every year. Remember, these are the most profitable companies in the history of humankind.

How the World Uses Coal – Interactive—Coal is not dead, but it is down. Maybe with a few more knockdowns we can call it a TKO.

France Breaks Ground on Europe’s Largest Solar Plant—Some people get excited to see fields of sunflowers or bluebells. I get excited to see rows and rows of solar panels. 300MW of solar PV is a lot of rows.

Wind Power Generated 126% of Scotland’s Household Energy Needs Last Month—Granted, it was windy and demand was not particularly high but over 100% of power anywhere from renewables is a good thing.

UK Approves 750-Megawatt Offshore Wind Project—This is some serious offshore wind. Just imagine if the U.S. developed some of the offshore wind capacity in the eastern part of the country?

Here Comes the Sun: America’s Solar Boom, in Charts—Just check out how big the solar revolution is going to be in the near future.

40% Renewable Energy Integration No Trouble For Midwest—Iowa is probably going to be the test bed for this theory as the percentage of our power generated from wind is quickly approaching the 40% mark with proposed projects coming on-line.

New Bounty of Oysters in Maryland, but There Is a Snag—As we look to intensively use more and more spaces, particularly arable land and coastlines, there are bound to be conflicts that arise. Can’t we all just get along?

U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans.—Do we really need a GMO potato so that people can eat more fast food French fries? Just asking.

The Biggest Lies About Science in the U.S. Government’s “Wastebook”—Conservatives love to publish little missives about waste and corruption by stretching the truth and acting like clowns. Here are some classics from a recent example. Remember, these are the people who preface every statement about science with “I’m not a scientist…”

Cash for Grass Changing the Landscape in California Drought—Why anyone would have a green lawn west of say Omaha is beyond me. Heck, I live in a place where do not need to water our lawn and I want to get rid of even more grass.

Saving the Last Wild Bison—Bison are amazing animals. A truly American animal that we should celebrate much more so than the stupid cow.

Gunnison Sage Grouse gets Federal Protection to Prevent Extinction—A lot of policy watchers anticipate this issue to be as contentious as the spotted owl decision in the 20th century. Instead of logging, a declining industry at the time of the spotted owl controversy, this impacts oil and gas. Get ready.

Clover is a Good Thing

“Are you going to do something about that clover?”

It was an offhand question from a neighbor which was asked while we watched our kids run around like mad people in the warm glow of an early autumn day when the temperature still allowed for shorts and sandals.

But, it forms the central line of thought about suburban lawns in most of the United States. Certain species of ornamental grass are good and everything else is an interloper. Even worse, there is a social pressure in some neighborhoods to maintain a certain type of grass in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Whatever.

In my opinion this is one of the most destructive impulses in modern America. In order to keep a thick carpet of Kentucky bluegrass we will pour water on our lawns when a drought is ongoing. We will coat our landscape in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maintain an artificial monoculture that can barely withstand the daily onslaught on children’s activities without looking threadbare. It is insane.

Which brings me back to the spreading patches of clover that I have nurtured in my lawn over the past couple of years. Dutch white clover is an amazing little plant that should not be wiped off the face of your landscape with an indiscriminate application of the latest miracle lawn chemical hawked by some guy in a Tyvek jumpsuit.

First, it fixes nitrogen in the soil. Like legumes and other “green manures” that people use in their vegetable gardens to put nitrogen back into the soil for healthy plants, clover can do this job for a lawn. So, instead of pouring bag after bag of synthetically derived fertilizer onto your lawn just let clover do the work of feeding your grass.

Second, it withstands close and repeated mowing. This means that it will survive and outcompete other non-grass plants that find it difficult to thrive when you keep lopping off the top portion of growth. It is amazing to see the kind of grass “mat” that is made when clover and turf intertwine. No crabgrass or lawn weeds seem able to penetrate the green fortress.

Third, in this era of climate change and weird weather clover will help the soil retain moisture, like a mulch, and it is relatively drought tolerant. If you are like me and you let your lawn go brown as the rainfall fails to appear, much to the chagrin of my sprinkler loving neighbors, patches of clover will maintain their green hue for a week or more after turf grasses start to go dormant.

About the only “downside” is that bees love the white flowers that rise from thick patches of clover. However, given the state of pollinators in the United States I think creating a little bit of bee friendly lawn is a good thing.

Sure, my lawn does not look like a golf course. But, who wants to maintain such an artificial environment steps away from their home on which their children play? Not this father.

Finally, the Yard Recovers

This past winter was brutal and the plants in the yard paid the price. The final tally included a dawn redwood, all the butterfly bushes, a rudbeckia, and thanks to some unidentified animal using its bark as a chew toy one yellow poplar/tulip tree. One of the lilac bushes near the compost bins was also severely denuded when spring came around making me wonder if it was going to be added to the casualty list.

The easiest replacement was the yellow poplar/tulip tree. It’s a great tree for the landscape, not over planted like a lot of maples, and with two other yellow poplars in that part of the yard it forms a nice triple planting.

The problem is that that I have lost a couple of season’s worth of growth and the replacement looks a little undersized:

Tulip Tree Replant

Little guy is included for height reference and to witness the joy of gardening.  I am hoping that the difference in height will be less noticeable as the trees mature.

The loss of the dawn redwood vexed me. I love that species of tree and I was really hoping that it would add a lot of interest to the yard because it was such an unusual specimen. Remember, I live in a neighborhood where people plant autumn blaze maples and Bradford pears. I would estimate that three-quarters or more of the trees are of those two types. God forbid that there is ever a Dutch elm disease-like outbreak that targets autumn blaze maples because neighborhoods in eastern Iowa would be deforested in no time.

However, I was concerned that the harsh winter—although somewhat more in line with what pre-climate change winters were like on occasion—was the culprit in killing the dawn redwood. I did not want to replace the tree every few seasons because the mercury dipped into the negative teens.

The solution presented itself in a London planetree:

London Planetree

This particular tree is believed to be a hybrid of a plane tree and a sycamore. Possessing the traits of the sycamore was of interest because sycamores are native to my neck of the woods. Plus, as a tree that is adapted to bottomlands it would stand up well to the intermittent standing water that collects during heavy spring rains. Or the rains that have inundated us here in June. The London planetree is a vigorous growing species and it is highly tolerant of difficult urban conditions like heat and pollution. Neither are a major concern in my suburban backyard, but it is comforting to know that this is a hardy tree.

The butterfly bushes are not going to be replaced because that spot in the garden is going to be reserved for hops come spring 2015. I have the plans for a trellis in the workshop and should put something in the ground by early fall.

Oh, and the lilac? It’s making a fairly remarkable recovery:

Lilac Reborn

And the grass? Do not even get me started on the grass. With no fertilizer, lots of rain, and lots of sun when there is no rain the grass is growing like a weed. How so? I need to mow every four days to keep it from looking too shaggy. Granted, part of that is because I mow my lawn at the highest setting. But still…

How Sandy is Your Yard?

I spent the weekend with a power rake and a core aerator prepping my yard for warm weather.  The top layer of soil was very compacted and hard.  The plugs from the core aerator were like little pieces of shale instead of soil.

The big surprise was how sandy the soil was just an inch below the soil.  This plug shows the extent:

Soil Plug

The sandy portion of this plug was almost as hard as the soil part.  Amazing and disturbing.  The good news is that I could watch water actually drain into the ground around the yard rather than run down toward the street.

The sad thing that I see is people pouring chemicals on their lawns and running sprinkler systems until the end of the day instead of addressing the problems with their lawns like thatch and soil compaction.  It’s hard work, but worth it in the end.

Memorial Day Trees

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The next best time is now.  ~Chinese Proverb

Here was my Memorial Day weekend project…trees!

Last year, I planted four red oaks, three Norway spruce, one crabapple, one elm, and replanted on maple.  Not a bad season’s worth of work.  This year I looked to add to the total.

The first was a group of three Tulip trees or yellow poplars (liriodendron tulipfera).  At a point in my lot where it meets three others I chose to plant these trees.  Before:


I chose the tulip trees because it was a species not extensively planted in my area. I could not find one exemplar anywhere in the neighborhood and the guys at Peck’s did not know of anyone in the area who would have planted a specimen.

It is an unfortunately named species.  Tulip tree is great, but yellow poplar conjures images of short lived, ragged Lombardy or hybrid poplars.  This tree is nothing like those species, save for a rapid growth rate which is an asset in a yard where everything is eight feet or shorter right now.

On the opposite corner of my lot I have a different situation where four lots meet in a Iowa version of the four corners.  It is a damp site that receives a lot of sun.  I could have gone with a birch of some kind, but like maples that species is very prevalent in the neighborhood.  As usual, I wanted something different.

Enter the dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides).  For anyone unfamiliar with this species here is a little background. It was thought extinct until 1944 when several were discovered in China.  It is one of the three species of tree considered “redwoods.”  The other two are the well known coast redwood and giant sequoia.  Unlike the other two, however, the dawn redwood can be grown in Iowa.

It is a unique tree in that it is a deciduous conifer.  Yep, a confier that loses its needles in winter.  Sweet.  Like the tulip trees, a dawn redwood is a rapid grower. I have seen claims of six or eight feet a year.  I am not a believer in something that aggressive, but it will be interesting to see how fast this tree does grow.  Here is the site before:


One nice thing about my neighborhood is that some people have chosen to plant more than a single tree in the front yard.  A glaring exception is the person with the largest lot who has yet to plant anything.  As a matter of fact this person has done nothing with the large expanse of space except pour chemicals and mow grass. Ugh!