Tag Archives: landscape

Personal Goals for 2020

Welcome to 2020 folks.

I have always said that I do not do “resolutions.”  Except for the year I told people that I was going to take up smoking, gain weight, and drink more.  Granted, I failed on all three but I made some resolutions. However, I will make some goals.

The reason I publish these goals and cadence them on this blog is that I have found it is hugely effective in getting me to execute.  The power of accountability. What follows does build on what I wanted to achieve in 2019.

Here are my goals for 2020:

  • Deeper decarbonization: It is one thing to put solar panels on your roof and buy an electric vehicle.  That is just the start. As I look at my household energy use holistically I can see several opportunities for deeper decarbonization.  A couple of examples: replacing an aging gasoline powered lawn mower with an electric lawn mower; replacing an existing natural gas fired water heater with an electric air source heat pump “smart” water heater.
  • Replace 500 Vehicle Miles with Human Powered Transit: It is one thing to replace a gasoline powered mile with an electric powered mile, but it is an even better thing to replace all of these miles with human powered miles.  Why? While an EV is orders of magnitude more efficient than an ICE vehicle, both pale in comparison to the efficiency of human powered transit. It is not just about the direct energy costs of delivering a human being to their desired location, but the embodied energy of the infrastructure required for cars.
  • Ride 2,500 Miles on my Bicycle: Last year I rode over 3,000 miles.  I am keeping the goal the same for this year because I am looking to incorporate more commuting into my summer riding and I am going to try and branch out with some different riding.  Maybe I will even get back into mountain biking after almost a decade out of the saddle.
  • Ride 2 “New to Me” Trails: There are so many potentially amazing trails just in my region that I have not ridden.  It is easy to become complacent and ride the “usual.” I am going to try and break out of the rut.
  • Local, Direct, and Packaging Neutral Beer: It is one thing to buy local beer, but it is better to buy it directly from the brewery without creating packaging waste.  Combining all three is like the holy grail of beer consumption.
  • Read 40 Books: Last year I read 51 books against a goal of 25 books.  I guess that I was sandbagging a little bit. Moving the goal up to 40 books, but there are a lot of thick and dense tomes on my book list.  Like Capital in the Twenty First Century dense.
  • Reduce Lawn, Increase Landscape Variety: There is too much grass.  Our lawns are giant monocultures that are crying to be diversified.  The goal this year is to take some of that grass out and replace it with diverse plantings that are beneficial for both the environment and wildlife.
  • Maximize Local Food: Month in and month out, food is the second largest expense in my household after a mortgage payment.  Directing as much of this money as possible to local vendors and producers is the single biggest change that I can make in 2020.  I have about three months of detailed information from the end of 2019 when I began thinking about this as a baseline, so I think I will know if I am doing a decent job.

DIY Mason Bee Homes

Mason Bee House Closeup

Pollinators are in trouble.  Colony collapse disorder has devastated bee populations.  Our national love affair with pesticides and insecticides has been a veritable holocaust for beneficial insects.  As a homeowner, part-time gardener, and all-around concerned person I felt it was my responsibility, perhaps duty, to build a habitat that was inviting to these insects that do so much for us humans.

The easiest thing that people can do to help out is to stop indiscriminately applying chemicals to our landscape.  Just because your lawn may be inhabited by ants and grubs is not license to conduct chemical warfare.  As a matter of principle, we should cease applying chemicals on our landscapes entirely because it is so wasteful.

Next, you can create inviting landscapes through the use of desirable plants.  I am a sucker for butterfly bushes and other showy perennials that butterflies and bees seem to love.  These plants tend to be drought tolerant and suited for my eastern Iowa climate, so all the better.

Lastly, I decided to create some homes for mason bees.  Mason bee is a generic name for a genus of bees (Osmia) that contains hundreds of different species.  In North America, according to Wikipedia, there are over 130 species.  Mason bees, unlike the more well-known European honeybee, are solitary and do not sting unless physically provoked.

One way to encourage mason bees to inhabit your yard is to make a “house” for these garden helpers.  You can search the internet and find hundreds of variations of mason bee house construction from painfully simple to bizarrely extravagant.  I am going to hew closer to the simple side of the spectrum with my construction because I prefer that aesthetic in my garden.

I started with a scavenged piece of 4×4 dimensional “white” wood lumber.  One key thing to remember when constructing your mason bee house is to avoid treated lumber at all costs.  You do not want to create an environment that actively kills the mason bees seeking to build a home in your yard.  I suppose you could use cedar or some other fancier wood to construct a house, but I liked the idea of using a scrap piece of wood.  My guess is that this was originally spruce or fir because of the smell when cutting the blocks and the lack of sap, which seems to be so prevalent on pine lumber.

I cut blocks that were approximately 8” tall and had a 10 degree slope cut on one end for the attachment of a board to act as a protective overhang:

Mason Bee Blanks

Again, I utilized a scrap piece of 1×6 pine dimensional lumber to construct the overhangs.  I simply nailed the overhang to the block with a trio of small nails.

Somewhere in my research, please let me know if anyone has a source, I read that a 5/16” hole is the perfect diameter for mason bees.  I do not know if this is true, but I am going to roll with the idea this time and see what happens.  Lacking a drill press, it took some time to drill all of the holes necessary for the house.

I was going to have more holes per block.  However, I quickly discovered that it would have weakened the wood block considerable.  So, I cut the number of holes in half and staggered them across the face of the block to create the environment for my soon-to-be garden friends.

Scavenging through my parts box and a friends bin of leftover plumbing supplies from many remodels of pre-World War II houses in eastern Iowa produced the perfect mounting system.  I kind of wanted a more industrial look to the houses than a simple wood stake would provide.  A pipe flange screwed to the bottom of the mason bee house and a two foot long piece of threaded black pipe were an ideal solution:

Mason Bee Flange

My hope is that over time the pipe rusts to a nice patina and I can easily reuse the pipe/flange combo by simply unscrewing it from the bottom of the house.

Amidst the butterfly bushes on my west facing garden bed these little houses look perfectly at home:

Mason Bee House Garden

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:

After:

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:

After:

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!