Monday, October 26, 2015

Saving a wooden wheelchair ramp from an early demise.

This wooden wheelchair ramp is only about 6 years old.

Wood is a great mateial to build things with and has been since the dawn of human civilization.  It's one of the lightest yet strongest materials to work with; most flexible in terms of what you can build with it; easiest to work with without expensive tools and one of the most pleasing to the eye in a landscape.  However, it does have it's downside: it does'nt last as long as some other materials do, especially if it is not properly protected. 

This wooden wheelchair ramp is only about 6 or 7 years old, yet it looks much older.  It is still strucurally sound for the most part, but is showing signs of beginning to fall apart already. 

Wood on this handrail is seriously warped & is coming loose.

The wood was stained back when it was built, but they must have used a very low quality stain that lacked good UV and water protection.  In places, it is as grey as an old barn. Worse yet, it is really drying out in our hot, dry climate and is starting to splinter apart.  The handrail above will be unsafe to use soon if something isn't done. 

Wood rot on this siding.

The lower sides of the ramp are covered with wooden siding which is working well for the most part, but in the places where they piled dirt and crushed rock against it, it is starting to rot.  We dug the rocks back from it and will keep them away.  We don't get a lot of rain in Las Vegas, but enough to cause wood rot if the wood isn't allowed to dry out fast enough. 

Some sort of borer larva, possibly Flathead Borers, have been munching on this post.

This post shows signs of some species of wood borers, maybe Flatheads, tunneling in it.  It is still sound so far, but will have to be replaced if the damage gets any worse. We'll be keeping an eye on it now that we know about it.  Haven't seen any signs of damage in the other posts yet. 

We highly recommend looking over all of your wood structures on your property for damage like this.
We dug down as far as we could around posts to get them protected too.

A good quality stain with UV & water protection

We decided to start with a well applied coat of good quality stain first and see if that is enough to deal with the drying wood and hopefully, even retard further borer damage.  We don't endorse any products, so we won't show the brand, but the things to look for are ultraviolet light (UV) protection, water resistance and a moderate price.  Like many things, you get what you pay for and the really cheap stain isn't truly worth your time to use as it doesn't last. 

This project was done in the autumn in Octorber as it's a great time of year in the Desert Southwest to do outdoor hardscape projects.  Cooler weather makes it more pleasant to do physical work like this and the stain will cure better when it is neither too hot nor too cold. 



Not only is the wood better protected from our harsh climate, it looks much better too. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Rescued Butterfly Bush Finds A Home

Butterfly Bush Buddleia davidii

This Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) was rescued from the discount rack at a local big box store that we call 'The Orange Store'.  It came in a tiny, flimsy plastic pot barely big enough for the roots, but only cost $2. It was wilty and sad looking at the time, but we saw promise in it because it had the best formed trunk and branches; no obvious evidence of girdling roots and several flower buds. 

When we brought it home, we put it in a spot under a California fan palm sapling (that will be transplanted too someday) and on the East side of the house to protect it from being blasted by the hot, setting sun each afternoon.  We transplanted it into two nested pots filled with a soil-less potting medium high in pearlite to ensure drainage and watered it until water began to drip from the bottom of the pot (it was sitting on a stand so that the water could drain out) every day.  

After it quit wilting, about two weeks later, it started to flower. The flowers sure are pretty! We are looking forward to seeing how it looks when the plant can support full inflorescences of blossoms.

Butterfly bush blossoms

The pink blossoms contrast nicely with the opposite leaves of this plant which are dark green on top (adaxial surface) and covered with fine, silvery white hair-like wax on the bottom (abaxial surface).  It may continue to produce pink blooms, or the next set might be a darker red, even almost purple as these plants have some variety in blossom color.  The flowers are quite small as seen above and are rather simple, yet elegant, in design with one row of petals, each with serrated edges, fused into a tube with a deep center that hides the pistil and stamens. 

Butterflies and hummingbirds possess tongues long enough to access the sweet nectar that these flowers produce.  We hope that this bush will become a natural feeder for them so that we'll get to enjoy watching them flit around the yard.  Since we never spray pesticides in our yard, we think we stand a better than average chance of attracting them now with this bush.

Once the bush flowered for a while (another couple of weeks) and even began growing new leaves (a very hopeful sign that it might survive after all), we decided to transplant it again.  The weather was cooperating too with highs in the 80's forecasted the whole week and a 40% chance of rain.  Cool, rainy weather is ideal for transplanting many species in the desert. 

To give the plant the best chance of success, we carefully planned its new location.  A well placed and well dug hole is the key to success when it comes to transplanting out here.

The ideal spot was between this wall
And this planter
We paced 7 ft from the wall to give the bush room to grow

This is a good spot because it will get morning sun, but afternoon shade from the house and it is close enough to my makeshift drip irrigation set up (someday, I'll install a proper irrigation system) that I can set a drip on it if I'm gone for an extended period.  It is also in a fairly level spot which will make controlling runoff much easier than planting on a slope.

Butterfly bush can grow to be about 15 feet wide and 12 feet tall, so we wanted a location where it would have plenty of room to grow without getting in the way of anything.  As you may have noticed from other blog posts, we are not big fans of needless pruning.  Had we planted this bush closer to the sidewalk or wall, it would need pruned almost annually.  Where it will be, it won't be too close to any of the traffic paths, and may even cast a little shade over the planter box someday. 


"Weed Barrier" is in the way!
Weed Barrier is a myth. It doesn't prevent weeds for more than a couple of years after installation.
Fine gravel under the plastic?
When we started digging, we discovered to our dismay, that the previous owners of this property had fallen for the myth that putting a layer of black plastic under your rocks would prevent weeds.  Apparently, they placed it over the entire yard.  We'd already removed some of it around the trees shortly after we moved in.  This plastic is going to have to go away if we can hope for healthy root systems for our plants.  It's preventing gas exchange between the soil and the air and is impeding water infiltration.

Good soil under the rocks
The soil profile of our yard. Note the compacted layer on the surface.

Now that we've gotten the rocks and plastic and compacted soil out of the way (please oh please dear reader, never cover your yard with rocks no matter what your water district says!), we've found actual soil.  We're blessed to have chosen a location in the Las Vegas Valley that has loamy sand soil with fine gravel! This is primo soil for the Mojave Desert. Very good drainage and just barely enough clay and loam in it to help hold moisture and nutrients.  Other places in the valley aren't so lucky and have layers of caliche 'clay' which is actually coral that was pulverized and buried when the volcanoes that are now the Black Mountains to the South erupted, burying what was once a huge lake as big or bigger than the Great Salt Lake to the North of us.  Where I am digging used to be part of the shoreline around that lake and is a bit more like digging in a beach than a lake bottom.  This is perfect for many desert native and adapted plants, including our little Butterfly bush.

I know this soil well, so I know what its physical and chemical properties are.  If I wasn't sure, I'd do a couple of tests before deciding to plop a plant in here.  First, I'd get a little vinegar and drip it in a shallow hole.  If it fizzed a lot, I'd know that the soil was very alkaline and may not be the best material to use for a plant species that is not adapted to the desert (such as roses or violets). Then, I'd dig a small hole down to my planned root zone depth and fill it with water, noting the time that I did so.  I'd come back every 10 minutes or so to check the water depth.  If the hole still had standing water in it after 30 minutes, I'd consider planting somewhere else or build a raised bed if there were no other good locations for the plant.  Never plant anything (other than maybe plants from swamps or marshes) in a place with poor drainage. Your plants will never be healthy there. 

dug the hole down just as deep as the flower pot was and about four times as wide to be sure to get as much plastic and rock out of the way as possible.

Luckily, the pot happens to be as deep as a spade is tall....

Makes measuring hole depth easy

People used to think that digging a really deep hole was key, but research has found that most trees and shrubs do not grow a really long tap root that winds up being as deep as the tree is tall. Only a very short list of trees actually do that, most of which aren't even grown in the U.S.  Actually, the key to tree stability is lateral roots. A wide fan of lateral roots extending out beyond the drip line of the mature tree canopy is what keeps trees from falling over.  That's why one spade deep is deep enough for this bush, but we made it as wide as we could. Someday, we'll probably come back and dig up even more of the rocks and plastic and move them out of the way as the bush gets bigger. 
Gently tapping the rootball out of the pot...

keeps the roots from being damaged
Placing the rootball in the hole, ensuring that potting soil is under and on all sides of it

Since the Butterfly bush was grown in soil-less potting media, we chose to keep that around the roots and to line the inside of the hole with it.  Our soil is pretty good by desert standards, but it's good to keep as much of the original soil around the roots to avoid breaking off any more root hairs (the tiny, almost invisible parts of roots that do all of the water and nutrient uptake) than we have to.  Eventually, the roots will grow out of the potting media and into the native soil, so we made sure to avoid compacting the bottom and sides of the hole, even raking at the surfaces with our fingers to make sure the spade didn't compact the soil too much.  Smooth, firm holes just become underground pots, preventing future root growth.
The native soil was gently placed around and on top of the rootball and gradually sloping away from the trunk, leaving a gap about a finger's width around the trunk to help prevent stem rot.

Bare soil was then covered with wood chip mulch out to what will soon be the dripline
Now that the plant was in the hole, we gently placed native soil around the sides of the potting media pile and over the top of it up to about a finger's width of the trunk.  Then, we covered that with a two to three inch thick layer of wood chip mulch also within a finger's width of the trunk.  That will help reduce the chance of stem rot that sometimes happens when soil and mulch are piled up around the trunk.  The mulch will help keep the soil moist and reduce soil erosion.  We used such a thick layer to help prevent weeds and to keep the mulch in place better than a light scattering would have.  As the bush gets bigger, we will move more rock and plastic away from it and add more mulch in its place. 

We then irrigated the plant with about a gallon of water and will water it about every other day to prevent wilting.  Thanks to the good drainage of this soil, that won't water-log the roots.  In heavier clay soil or in caliche, we would have to wait longer between waterings to avoid drowning the roots.  If the soil was really tight, we would have just built a tall planting box full of potting medium on top of the ground with a reservoir hole filled with gravel underneath it and planted the bush in that.  Once the bush is established, a deep watering once a week will be all it needs, even in summer.   

  Now, if all goes well, no guarantees when it comes to growing things, we'll have a lovely Butterfly bush to enjoy for years to come.