Quackgrass – who’s in control?

Every gardener, even those who have embraced weeds, likely has their nemesis plant.  That one garden invader that holds on tenaciously, spreads like honey on a hot day, can’t be eaten, and crowds out or poisons the ‘good’ plants.  Mine is quackgrass ( Agropyron repens ).

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

Strawberries from this bed.

Strawberries from this bed.

There are all kinds of great suggestions to control quackgrass, I’ve failed to take any of them to the level I would need to.  In my desire to garden gently and make conditions as much like a normal forest as possible, I am adverse to chemicals, tilling (this may be a good thing as the grass rhizomes can spawn a huge number of new plants when they get chewed up and spit back out), and mowing.  I have generally attempted to turn the lawn that came with my house into forest garden by sheet mulching and cover cropping.  If I had been able to sheet mulch the whole grassy area at once with at least 3 layers of overlapping cardboard/thick newspaper and mulch on top, it would have helped.  I would have also had to do something along the approximately 180 feet of the perimeter of the lot that borders the neighbors’ grass.  Instead, I only had the materials and time to tackle a section at a time, and the grass spreads back onto my mulched area in less than a year.  In fact, the rhizomes seem quite happy snaking along the cardboard, through its crenelated pathways, to pop up again in the specially prepared fertile, sunny middle of the sheet mulch.  Perhaps newspaper would work better, but the grass apparently likes a hard surface below soft soil to spread along, hardpan or old yard surface – each does the trick!

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

I also have too much area to be very successful with mulching – even when I score bags and bags of leaves, I never seem to have enough to even come close to mulching over a foot in all the affected areas as recommended.  I also have so many tender young plants that I have to be light and careful mulching around these keepers.

I have spent five years in battle now – sheet mulching, pulling grass around plants and throwing it to the chickens (so that it doesn’t reroot, as even dried up pulled plants can), trying my best to totally eradicate grass in my yard.  But my approach is softening.  For one thing, my perceptions are gently shifting.  My reading had led me to the conclusion that this grass had not much going for it – not edible (by humans anyway), invasive, creating a tough root mat that outcompeted other plants for nutrients and perhaps exuded something that inhibited other plant growth (I can’t find much on this online, so it may be total bunk).  But as I look around my garden today, I see a pretty functional food-production space that still happens to have a lot of quackgrass.  My strawberry patch is chock full of it, and yet still produces abundant strawberries.  In fact, strawberries thrive amongst the grass in various parts of the yard, competing well without totally outcompeting it.  My fruit trees are also surrounded by healthy rings of tall grass without seeming to be too put out.  I have tried planting dense rings of bulbs (mostly tulips) around my trees to keep grass from encroaching, but not all of the bulbs make it and grass grows happily among them.  In fact, I think I set an apple tree back with one round of my bulb planting, impacting too many of the shallow tree roots.


Apple tree, strawberry, spent tulips and quackgrass, partying it up.




same thing, wider view.

same thing, wider view.

Various techniques allow annual gardens to flourish – raised beds, good weeding, getting things to grow before the grass invades the newly mulched or dug beds.  But I am leaning more and more towards pure forest gardening with time.  The fruits and berries that result are more likely to be consumed than turnips anyway, and I have plenty of weeds to eat when I need vitamins (dandelion, dock, chickweed, sheep sorrel, lamb’s quarters to name a few), and fruit is more expensive at the farmers market than broccoli and greens.

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

There are areas where I have managed near total eradication – generally where I have managed to temporarily remove all surface traces of the grass and then get other things that really shade the ground going.  Most successful of these cover crops is perennial red clover, with other things sometimes able to mix in.  Not successful is sheet mulching a large area and not planting it right away – like the garden bed I prepared last fall and didn’t plant until after a trip to europe this summer, or the swaths of ground and path I have tried to keep wood chipped.

red clover, parsnip, lupine.  Very little grass.

red clover, parsnip, lupine. Very little grass.

Also, my chicken tractor is a help.  By itself, it does not eliminate the grass, but the chickens do eat it and dig up the ground enough to give me a dirt patch to try to get other things going in.  And if I could repeatedly tractor all of the grass every time it got five inches high it might exhaust the grass’ resources.  The chickens have been scratching enough of their barley into the ground that it is mostly barley thats been sprouting up after I move their tractor.

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Sometimes, sitting in the garden in the failing light of day, I have caught a glimpse of the tall seed heads of my quackgrass.  And I have been filled, not with repugnance, but with the visual lullaby of wind made manifest in the patterns of nodding grass.  Truce.


Photos of the Finished Bike Parking Rack

Behind in posting as usual, but somewhere between the first and second snow last month we finished the roofed bike parking! Here are some photos, after them I’ll sketch out construction methods and approximate costs:

View from the parking lot, lightly screened against casual viewing from street by old fence boards.

View from the parking lot, lightly screened against casual viewing from street by old fence boards.

There are 5 bike racks and room on the side for trailers

There are 5 bike racks and room on the side for trailers

View back toward the 'plex.

View back toward the ‘plex.

Polycarbonate roofing panels to keep the snow and rain off, let light in and through!

Polycarbonate roofing panels to keep the snow and rain off, let light in and through!

Basic covered structure is: Treated 4×4 and 4×6 corner posts for a shed roof (salvaged from a fence I am tearing down and other sources).  Back 2 posts are the 4×4’s buried about a foot in concrete, sticking up 3 feet.  Front 2 are 4×6’s buried about 2 feet in concrete, sticking up 6 feet.  Treated 2×6’s are bolted across the front and back posts (2 in front, 1 in back – but could have just used 1 in each location).  Approximate floor space dimensions are 8 feet deep by 16 feet long.  10′ 2×4’s are the rafters, spaced every 2′ with salvaged 2×4 blocking at least every 3′ along the rafters to support the polycarbonate 2’x8′ roofing panels (partial panels finish off the 10′ run of the rafters).  Some brass sheeting left over from something was bent to cap each of the upper rafter ends.

Materials (with prices where remembered!):

(3) 20′ treated 2×6’s – $74

(10) 10′ 2×4’s for rafters

salvaged 2×4’s for blocking in between rafters

salvaged treated posts ( (2) 4′ 4×4’s and (2) 8′ 4×6’s)

(12) 2’x8′ polycarbonate roofing panels – approx. $300

wiggly wood (our name for it – the wooden pieces that are shaped like the crenelated panels to support them on the blocking)

special expensive screws with rubber washers to screw the panels down – luckily I was given a bunch left over from a friend’s project

For the bike racks themselves: 5 inverted ‘U’ shaped racks were made from 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe and 90degree elbows. The U’s (or n’s) are 5′ long but 2′ is buried in concrete in the ground with 3′ sticking up. They are 1′ wide and spaced approx. 3′ from each other (as per city of Boston recommendations I found online).  A bike can be locked to each side of each inverted U, for an easy 10 bikes, with plenty of space in between to avoid locking peddles and handlebars.

Materials (total cost for these is about $300)

(10) Galvanized steel 90 degree elbows – 1.5″ threaded inner diameter

(5) 12″ long 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe, threaded both ends

(5) 10′ lengths of 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe, threaded both ends (for no extra cost, the Home Depotarian will cut these in half for you, so that an unthreaded end can be buried in concrete, and a threaded end at the top can be screwed onto an elbow.  Much cheaper than pre-cut threaded sections at the box store)

enough 50lb sacks of ready-mix concrete for use in setting posts.  This was fun because you don’t have to premix with water – you just pour in your hole around the post, spraying with water every 1/3 fill or so.  I think it took somewhere around 15 bags?  That’s the problem with delayed blogging and lax record keeping!

Last but not least – the invaluable help of my friends and fellow ecoplexetarians!  Thanks everyone!

Financial Independence through Owner Occupied 4-plex?

(note: this post was first written Feb. 27, 2013 but not published, some current details have changed, but not the gist!)

The view from the 'plex, sometimes.

The view from the ‘plex, sometimes.

Some of you might be familiar with the book ‘Your Money or Your Life’, or in some other form contemplated financial independence. I’ll loosely define financial independence as not being dependent on traditional job income to get by. This could be from traditional retirement, early retirement, whatever. Who hasn’t dreamed of not having to work for a living, at least sometimes or at some point!

The eco-plex is my current best chance at retiring someday before I’m dead. It certainly didn’t start as a financial choice, but I think it’s turned into a good one for me, not probably the most lucrative, but it fits my current proclivities and personality. I sometimes think everyone should do it, but I know the market has changed, Anchorage is unique, and there are things I like to do or can handle that not everyone is into, so this post isn’t a how to (please please do your homework if you are planning to go this route – I’m actually not at all savvy or knowledgeable on investing in general, and there are, of course, headaches and real risks to owning rental property). But I will explain below, with a fair bit of detail, how the ‘plex is working for me financially. Long story short, good enough that I have to rationalize living off the back of my tenants, all capitalist pig style (I’ve rationalized that I don’t, really, and read below for details of this rationalization).

I’ve always had, or knew I could have very low expenses (I’m healthy and able, I’m not a shopper, I grow some food, I don’t need to and have rarely owned a car, I like living in small spaces with lots of people, I am fine with mismatched and worn goods, and while I always plan to shop at the thrift store for them, I even more often get given things or find them in the dumpster, etc, etc). I still remember my original plan when I was contemplating quitting grad school was to find a good job making $100K a year (I’ve rarely made anywhere close to this – but it was a possibility with the education I received – loan free by the way, I was very lucky with scholarships and need based grants and I do feel blessed for that). I planned to live on $7K of that per year (dumpster diving, sharing small spaces with folks, whatever…I had it all calculated in any case, and though I probably only managed that one year of my adult life, I was within a factor of 2 of that in grad school and some other times). But ultimately I decided to choose work based on my heart rather than the money, and I’ve similarly spent plenty on travel, my child, and other happy events. Not that I am immune from impulse purchases and unnecessary restaurant meals when the money is there. I’m an incessant budgeter, but I don’t sweat it too much when I break my budget, as long as I don’t go into debt – I don’t carry consumer debt, never have.

OK, so I dreamed of the eco-plex for quite a while, at least for the 2 years that I worked a normal job making somewhere north of $50K per annum saving up money and job history to buy it. I wanted the 4-plex to fit with my low budget life, but mostly I wanted it as a project – a way to live in community, a way to have a garden while keeping the shared walls and smaller apartment sizes of my renter lifestyle, and a building that I could make as energy efficient as possible as a demonstration and also nest in a bit – making it beautiful in ways that mattered to me.

I wanted as many units as possible while still qualifying for an affordable mortgage (1-st time homebuyer with 2.5% down – FHA), thus the 4-plex – to spread my influence and the efficiency of having shared walls the furthest. I wanted to be in a walkable neighborhood, near work (I’ve changed jobs 3 times since the purchase, but always been able to walk to work – the farthest was 2 miles away). I had to be able to afford it – and with my income history, this was the only one that fit the ticket – luckily I liked it too (see early posts in this blog for more on this topic). I bought it for about $275K in 2008, with only 2.5% down as I said (and over 6% interest).

For the first 2 years I owned it, it certainly did suck money, but mostly because I allowed it to. There were plenty of small repairs, etc (most detailed somewhere on the blog), and I spent about $30K out of pocket, after home energy rebate, on insulating the building better and other big ticket energy efficiency improvements. I was still at my good paying (for me) job, and living pretty simply, so I had the money to do this and the loss on my taxes (from depreciation of the property and my improvements, higher expenses than income, etc) of a few thousand dollars was pleasant at tax time. During this time the units were definitely not modern and immaculate, and they still aren’t, but for the right person they have a certain charm. Rents were pretty much rock bottom, and it was easy to attract tenants with this plus the allure of a ‘green’ rental and garden space. I did have some non-ideal tenants, but everyone has been reasonable and personable, and I have been lucky enough to not have to evict or lose rents or have tenants who caused even semi-major damage. I think living in the building has helped a lot – I know exactly who is there and what is going on, I know my tenants personally, and any problems can be discussed and worked out before they become unmanageable.

The next two years were much closer to break even. My tax accounting still shows a loss (and I don’t cheat, so this should be accurate), but it got smaller and smaller. I was still remodeling units and upgrading appliances and other above and beyond improvements (the sorts of things that depreciate on your taxes instead of being expended away), and also taking care of a lot of deferred maintenance. Sometimes I called someone in, but often I did the work myself (usually with the help of friends and family). Over this two year span I frequently did feel overwhelmed – mostly from having my unit torn up and always feeling like I should be finishing up a house project. This was common among my friends with project houses, and mine is certainly a project – as intended. Usually the more routine 4-plex maintenance was much easier to handle and took up a much smaller part of my time and energy. Yes, there were plumbing emergency calls late at night, but not frequently and the frustration and worry was usually quickly replaced by the satisfaction of a fix. Often these got called out to plumbers, but I still always feeling good when the work is done and I’ve paid the bill. Many of my tenants have been short timers – students or seasonal employees, or couples who had a baby and moved on, so I’ve had my share of move outs and move ins, but these are often quite smooth. I do take this opportunity to do the last landlord’s delayed maintenance on the units and make some improvements while they are vacant, so there can be some work and stress there, but again it feels rewarding to me in the end. I have it down so that I rarely have much of a vacancy anymore – maybe a week if I want to make improvements, sometimes less than a day. I use craigslist to find tenants.

Last year I did a streamlined refinance to 3.9% (a bit higher than the rates at the time, but that covered rolling my closing costs in). I’ve also come a long way in making the building efficient and choosing good tenants and I’m starting to feel serious financial benefit. According to my schedule E, I actually made money on the place last year. Only about $1k, but it’s a start (of course, my unit is not considered in the IRS rental property calculation, so the portion of the expenses for my unit aren’t taken into consideration).

So how am I doing day to day? This is the way I look at it: I wanted to have a big space to garden and the ability to do energy efficiency improvements and nest. Maybe I could have gotten a nice, small, condo to do this, but probably not with significant garden space. Likely my more traditional choice would have been buying a single family home. Rock bottom for a small one in my neighborhood probably runs about $170K (after a quick search on Zillow), for a mortgage of $755/mo plus utilities, insurance, and taxes. Certainly more, in the end, than the $800/mo I was spending on an apartment before I bought this place. In any case, I would have put plenty of money in upgrades to improve the efficiency and durability of this house, and I would have nested at least a bit (ok, maybe a lot – by which I mean aesthetic improvements). My mortgage is about $1200/mo, ~$1795 after insurance and taxes. My utilities (remember I’ve worked to make it efficient, but there is more I can do) average about $450 or less per month. I’ve estimated that if I wasn’t upgrading, just replacing and repairing things as needed, my monthly set aside for that would be about $250. That totals to $2495/mo. My rental proceeds are currently $2400. So I pay $95/month plus whatever I pay to make my desired improvements. Seems like a good deal to me.

Update on 11/17/13 – My rental income is a bit higher now, mostly because my son and I both have our beds in one big bedroom of the basement unit, and rent the second room to a good friend. I also finished upgrades (at least the ones that were in progress) on the middle unit, so it is worth a bit more than any unit was before. Repairs and needed improvements (like bike parking for all our bikes!!) do take more than I budget sometimes though. Partly because when I discover a window is not closing all the way anymore, and can’t easily be fixed, I replace it with a top of the line, insulated fiberglass frame, triple pane window. I am trying to only do necessary repairs and real efficiency-boosting projects now.

Honestly, I am a bit burnt out on house projects and didn’t originally publish this because I wasn’t really so sure, despite trying to convince myself, that owning an old building was a sane life strategy! Most of the time, it seems great, but it seems that when emergencies do happen, they come in groups (I discovered a roof leak, a toilet leak, and a couple of other problems all within one week a couple of months ago!). And despite some preventative maintenance, and trying to replace things with durable, fool-proof fixes, the small emergencies don’t seem to be decreasing with time. But my knowledge of how to deal with them generally is, and I do more myself than in the early days. Generally, upkeep is cheaper than in the beginning, but someday big things like the boiler and roof will need replacement, and so I need to be banking those savings. I also get a lot of help with my projects – especially the dirtiest, trickiest, most labor intensive parts, which is wonderful. I have no illusions, and neither should you, that this is a one-woman against the world project!

And for the conclusion on the financial independence aspects (which I never really finished elaborating), right now it allows me to build equity while trading my original investment, ongoing sweat, responsibility, and some influx of ‘hobby’ money. In plain terms, unless something big breaks, I don’t really have to spend any money beyond rental incomes each month on living accommodations or utilities or small repairs. In return, I handle emergencies, shell out for supplies big or small, manage the place, shovel snow, etc, etc. Sometimes manageable and pleasant, sometimes overwhelming! If I sell before I pay off the mortgage I will have cash equity I can take with me (if markets don’t crash). Otherwise, I will have a modest rental income when the mortgage is paid. I think it’s been a wise choice, all in all! With my down payment, I could have built a tiny house with tiny utilities and been in a similar place, maybe, today – but without the friends who live with me, the shared walls, and the equity building. I have friends with single family houses that rent out all the extra rooms and also live rent free, and this seems like a great strategy too – only slightly less equity building and fewer plumbing problems to fix! I might take that trade off!

And how’d the rest of the summer go?

bike parking work party

bike parking work party

One more month and we’ll be celebrating 5 years of the ecoplex! I find it funny that I find so little time to update this blog now, since in many ways my life has gotten way less busy since the beginning, but also less structured and structure helps me fit things in, I guess.

So the community garden sheet mulch beds are a raging success – they were very, very productive and beautiful (well, still are…only had one night of light frost so far).

Baby birds were finally born on-site as mama-duck hatched her first two ducklings. Sadly, one didn’t make it, but the black duckling is almost full grown and beautiful!

I finished up the remodel of the first floor unit (#3) and moved out – it’s lovely even if I never got around to replacing the vinyl kitchen flooring or adding more natural lighting.

The finished yellow bedroom - new paint, re-plastered ceiling, new light

The finished yellow bedroom – new paint, re-plastered ceiling, new light

I finally fulfilled my dream to live in the basement apartment (#4). It’s also a 2-bedroom, but osh and I both have our beds in one room, so there was a spare room. Rented the first floor apartment and my extra room in the basement apartment to a good friend and her roommates, and I am really enjoying the community! I do have to adjust to sharing spaces and objects though. Last night I got out a drinking glass to use as a cookie cutter, then decided I had to let the dough sit a bit longer. I came back to the kitchen later and rolled out my dough. Then I turned the glass over to cut cookies and poured water all over the rolled out dough! Of course my second thought (after the inevitable swear words in my mind) was to tell this funny story of assuming no one but me was acting on the objects in my kitchen to my housemate.

My new housemates and I formed a work party and finally made bike parking! Well, the roof isn’t on yet, but we have the 4×4 and 4×6 corner posts for a shed roof (salvaged from a fence I am tearing down and other sources) and 5 inverted ‘U’ shaped racks made from 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe and 90degree elbows. The U’s (or n’s) are 5′ long but 2′ is buried in concrete in the ground with 3′ sticking up. They are 1′ wide and spaced 3′ from each other (I’ll get a picture up someday!) A bike can be locked to each side of each inverted U, for an easy 10 bikes, with plenty of space in between to avoid locking peddles and handlebars. Total cost ~$300 so far – mostly for pipe and ready-mix concrete. Will probably spend more on polycarbonate clear roof panels.

Also, last week I figured out my roof had been leaking for a while, as rain water came in around the fan in my dad’s unit (#2). Turns out whoever put on the metal roof years ago never flashed or cricketed around the chimney, they just gooped up the gap with roofing tar stuff. I figured it out pretty fast, but my fix is only temporary – I used some aluminum tape as weak flashing and Henry’s to re-goop. It should last through til spring and I had the materials on hand. It will give me time to figure out if I can do repairs myself, if I should hire it done, or if I should replace the boiler with a high-efficiency condensing unit and rip out the chimney all together (I should, but I don’t have the $ on hand and am reluctant to take out a loan for this).

That’s the big stuff, here’s a summary by category of other summer happenings:

Efficiency and funtional improvements to the ‘plex:
-efficient Panasonic whisper wall fan installed in #3 on a motion sensor switch
-range hood fan in #3 routed to outside (instead of going only to a filter in the hood).
-afore-mentioned bike parking
-storm door mounted on North side door.
-broken dishwasher in #3 replaced with energy star model
-fan in #4 bath put on humidity sensor
-triple pane insulated-frame (U=.13) fiberglass windows ordered from Greatland in Fairbanks to replace the broken and old wood-framed windows in upstairs bath’s (#1 and #2)

A visit to Greatland Window in Fairbanks!

A visit to Greatland Window in Fairbanks!

-3 more Panasonic fans (whisper-green 50cfms) ordered for other 3 baths
-while cleaning water from roof leak out of attic, air sealing attic floor better.

Local food things:
-went dipnetting at Chitina again, tried to make Botargo from salmon roes – smells nasty, but tastes ok, haven’t really done anything with it yet

Rolling salted sockeye roe to make botargo

Rolling salted sockeye roe to make botargo

-collected bountiful poppy seed harvest and made hammentaschen:
making hammentaschen with homegrown poppy seeds

making hammentaschen with homegrown poppy seeds

-grew lots of turnips as usual
-another great fruit year! All the cherries died back so much they didn’t produce, but have 5 apple pies in the freezer and ate countless berries.
-Also a great mushroom year – found some edible agaricus in the front yard that were delish. Decided that hawk’s wings (shingled hedgehog) not worth any effort to parboil out bitterness – yuck! Dried plenty of boletus.

I am working both of my jobs from home now. I have mostly settled in to that, although having 2 different things to do on two different work computers can be a challenge. I manage my website most mornings for about 3 hours before my son gets really up and about, and fit the other in when I need to or can. Osh is homeschooling this year, but he is in a program that includes core classes taught for 4 hours on tues and thurs with a ton of homework. The homework is painful. But it is nice to not have to get up early every weekday and rush off to school. He gets a ride to class, and it doesn’t start until 10am. SO generally life is, or should be, pretty relaxed. With getting work done early or taking computers with me we have been able to visit my mom in Oregon for a week, go to Salmonstock music fest, camp and travel the state in the middle of the week, etc. On the other hand, I often work a bit 7 days of the week. So each day is chill, but no day is totally relaxing. Also, while not too bad, the lack of imposed structure can paradoxically make it harder for me to fit in errands or other routines like posting to this blog. And just when I think I’m going to get a break from working on the ‘plex, the roof leaks (for example). But generally I’m done with aesthetic building remodeling, and plan to just catch up on and do functional repairs as needed, which should make for a less stressful existence. My current housemates are a great community, and I look forward to other joint, mutually beneficial, projects. Having my friend move in to my spare room means that I can (and have had to) get rid of some of my stuff-accumulation (we only need one tea kettle, and why did I have four 1/3 C measuring cups?) I enjoy the extra company, the help with cleaning, and all the other benefits.

SO that’s the update! I’m looking forward to a quiet winter, so maybe I’ll have time for more in depth posts on some things – like bike parking specifics.

Off to a good start!

Things are going great at the 30th street community garden!  If you remember (and read the previous post if you don’t) I was holding the sheetmulch bed building workshop on May 4.  Except that it got really cold and snowed and practically no one came.  So I held it on May 11 and everyone came!


Saskia of Williams Street Farmhouse teaching sheet mulch theory

It was excellent and 2 big 5 x 20 foot beds were built out of maybe 3 cubic yards of pure goat poop (no bedding), a huge amount of cardboard including two rocket box cartopper boxes from REI, and 17 2-string bales of spoiled hay.

Serious bed making

Serious bed making

Two of my tenants divied up one bed, and a neighbor immediately planted potatoes in the other.  Sometime later I put together another, slightly less beefy bed (not as thick but just as big in plan view) using cardboard, the entire winter’s worth of chicken bedding (as the ‘green’ or nitrogen-rich layers), old bagged grass clippings from last year, dried leaves, and straw found by my lovely tenant in an Anchorage yard with a sign labeled ‘free browns’ next to the bags.  Another neighbor planted flowers and seeds into the thin layer of capping garden soil.

Today, my tenant who works for AYEA (Alaska Youth for Environmental Action) procured more manure from the valley and invited some of the AYEA youth over for a sheet mulch workshop and bed building party, including a bee-keeping demonstration by my beekeeping tenant!  It was wonderful!

Four 5x20 beds in the community garden!

Four 5×20 beds in the community garden!

In related news, I am reading Farm City by Novella Carpenter and it is, honestly, a little spooky – all the parallels. Oh, there are the big differences – she rents/squats her space, I own. We only have the occasional shooting on my street, though apparently pretty much the same amounts of crazy (ours and our neighbors), diversity, poverty, drugs, illegal activity. It’s no Oakland here, but Spenard tries its best. My next door neighbor who lives in his car is named Jesus, not Bobby. I live on 30th, not 28th. I have so far only contemplated pigs and rabbits. I ate all of my dog-killed birds, never being sentimental enough to bury any (remind me to tell you about the two delicious ducks that died of cold-related injury this winter and the two delicious hens that were killed by a dog early this spring). So we are totally different. Totally. Really. Except that both of our houses are a total mess. That I will admit is the same.

30th Ave Community Garden!

I’m having a sheet mulch workshop and bbq Saturday May 4, 2013 to start building a community garden for my street! Please come! Email me at katmainomad (at) gmail (dot) com if you think you will or need more information.
Background: Ever since I bought the ecoplex in 2008 I’ve dreamed of turning one of the empty lots on the street into a community garden. This probably would have been easy enough by asking an absentee landlord for permission and getting on with it, but that never happened. Owning the land, although contrary to the ‘community’ part, could ensure that someone else didn’t spoil the plans at some future date. Last summer, I bought the land next door to me. I might develop another ecoplex on it someday, but I really would like part of it to remain community garden in perpetuity. A community garden is needed here because it is a high density, low income area with a dearth of green space. Challenges to the project include my shyness, the high turn over of the rental community, a lack of good soil on the lot, some potential language barriers. Resources for the project include a diversity of knowledge and background in the community, and enthusiasm – from me right now and quite potentially from other participants!

A few weekends ago I cased the entire neighborhood passing out flyers (with the help of a very generous and kind friend) inviting folks over for an initial garden meeting with snacks. One very nice man from the neighborhood and a friend from the permaculture guild showed up. Since then one other person in the ‘hood has sought me out wanting garden space. My tenants will also have space. Honestly, just building 5 big beds for those people will take all the resources I could probably muster this spring, but I’m guessing once we start building it, more will come. So far I have gathered 17 2-string bales of spoiled hay from the valley, along with (by tomorrow) two car loads of pure goat manure (no bedding) and a bunch of cardboard. Due to the compacted poor soils, we are going to build sheet mulch beds with these materials and a little soil from my lot to plant into. Sheet mulch beds are a composting-in-place permaculture technique, and these beds will probably be most fertile next year after they rot down a bit. Saskia Esslinger of Red Edge Designs/ Williams Street Farmhouse will teach the workshop Saturday. I’ll post pictures as we build things. I’m hoping to get two 5′ by 20′ beds in this weekend with those materials. It’s been a cold spring and luckily the last of the snow left the future garden spot in the last couple of days, by Saturday we’ll be good to go…hopefully!

Doesn't look like much now, but just wait...

Doesn’t look like much now, but just wait…

It could be worse...this was 5 days ago!

It could be worse…this was 5 days ago!

#3 Bathroom reveal

IMG_1746I was poking around on a DIY budget/crafty remodly blog and they used the word ‘reveal’ for their posts on finished project rooms – so maybe that’s a thing. I’ll roll with it. I am almost finished with the bathroom in my unit, so I’ll post all these pictures before I forget! I don’t have many before pictures. There was old vinyl flooring with wear and stains and cracks. There was a big, high flush toilet that was so old the porcelain in the bowl was pitted and permanently stained and smelly. There was hideous old oak towel racks and vanity – I don’t know why but I hate 1980’s style cheap oak furnishings. And brass hardware – I hate this too. Well, hate is a strong word, I prefer silver tones to gold tones. There was a leaky tub faucet, that had been reseated and re-gasketed and began leaking again. There was a ripped up vinyl bath surround. There was moldy drywall. There was an old tub with wear and sitting very slanted. My goal was to spend a pittance, re-use or find used everything I could, and make the space as durable and energy efficient as possible. A materials list will follow the photo essay.

Well over TWO YEARS AGO I ripped out the tub surround and drywall and took out the old tub faucet and installed shut off valves. Then my boyfriend took out my shut off valves and installed better ones. After a few months of no baths, he also installed the new faucet I had bought. I can install faucets, really, I was just being really slow about getting to it! Then I ripped out the drop ceiling over the tub and insulated heat pipes and framed in with 2x2s and some scrap 2×4’s and installed cement board all around the tub. Slowly, over a few months or so, working in small chunks of time, I tiled the bath surround:

Then grouting – in progress in this photo. I did a few small mosaics with broken bowls and plates I had been saving up, and I’m happy with them but they probably were a bit more trouble than they were worth!

In the shower head wall I also framed in and tiled a recessed set of shelves for shampoo and such and left an opening for a stack of glass block, since the tub area was quite dark (you can almost make out the old flooring, toilet, etc in the background):

Here is that same view today – new toilet, some trim painted white, glass block installed, tiled floor (I’ll get to those improvements):

And here is a slightly closer view of that wall – the line of mosaic here is to take your mind off the fact that I did not replace or level the tub. I wish I’d leveled it at least. It seems stable but quite tilted. I didn’t want to mess up the drains, but the over flow drain at least does seem, on reflection, to be off such that leveling the tub may actually have helped it lined up. In any case, nothing is leaking, and it doesn’t seem to be settling any more, so I’ll live with it. or the next tenants will. the porcelain is old and stained a bit in the bottom and chipped, so maybe it’ll get resurfaced someday:

The next step was tiling the floor and replacing floor trim, which I first stained ‘bombay mahogany’ with stain a friend had passed on to me:

My big splurge was a super low flush/dual flush toilet with a sink on the tank, so you can use the clean refill water to wash your hands. It was over $700. I’m crazy! You can retrofit a tank to have a sink on top (I’ve seen a great instruct able), but I was time poor and also was convinced by a friend that I wanted to shell out for a Caroma brand toilet because they don’t clog. I’m all for low maintenance:

I had to buy the seat separately – I couldn’t find an elongated used one (just round), so I bought a new wooden (though white painted) cheap one. I like it. I hate the cheap plastic flimsy seats that came with my cheaper low-flush toilets:

I also used the stain I was given on the old vanity, towel and toilet paper racks. I’m happy with the result. I thought of getting updated handles for the vanity but decided I was sick of using up the earth’s resources for my vanity (hah! get it!), so I kept the originals and stained them too:

I tried to use a hand-me-down faucet that matched the new one in the tub pretty well:

…but it leaked when I put on my super-low-flow aerator, so I got a faucet from the thrift store that worked. I love the porcelain handles, not so much a fan of the slightly tarnished brass body, but oh well. I tried to polish the brass (and it is real brass, not plated), but it must be lacquered and I don’t feel like trying to remove that:

That’s about it! I put a fresh coat of white paint on the walls, drop ceiling grid, some trim and the door that had been bad-looking wood. Stuart approves anyway:

I still need to add a panasonic whisper wall fan on a humidity sensor switch and some more trim (around the outside of the glass block, etc), and replace the light fixture on the ceiling with one I bought. Mostly it is done though, and it is very functional!

Materials used (that weren’t already there):
Habitat for Humanity ReStore tile on walls and floor (maybe $50?)
New cement board (another $50 or so??)
Caroma dual flush toilet with sink – ~$700 – – 0.8 gallons pee flush, 1.28 gallons per poop flush
Stain – free from a friend
Poly coat – 2nd hand from ReStore – $1
white paint from ReStore – $5
Sink faucet from Bishops Attic – $3.50 – with aerator uses 0.5 gpm
New bath faucet/ shut offs etc – <$100 (already had the low flow shower head – 1.5 gpm)
thinset and grout and some floor leveling compound – cheap from ReStore
Wax rings and toilet seat – new from Lowes – <$20
Glass block and new ceiling light fixture from ReStore (~$15??)
Also given to me used – some green glass tile and the curved shower curtain bar