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Archive for July, 2008

Outdoor Showers — This Year They are Even Better

Last summer I dreamed of ordering an outdoor shower, a long time plan for my backyard. But as always, other priorities come up, like xeriscaping the front yard and renovating our decrepit bathroom. In fact, we are trying to remodel our bathroom so it kinda feels like we are showering outdoors.

I’m glad we’ve waited to buy a shower unit– there are some significant improvements in outdoor showers this year.

There is certainly a greater variety of outdoor showers with Cheap Portable Showers, Minimalist Metal Showers and Lovely Wooden Showers. But my favorite improvement this year is the Solar Heated Outdoor Showers of which there are several nice options. We’re not talking the old fashioned camping showers with a big plastic bag and a tube. These are free-standing shower units that simply plug into the hose. Since they don’t offer both hot and cold inputs, the solar models are sweet — they just hold a reservoir of water in a black compartment to warm it up. The other models offer a brisk eye-opening squirt.

If you are like me and you just don’t care if your neighbors with multistory homes watch you shower naked in the privacy of your own backyard, you are all set. But if you prefer a little modesty, another nice improvement this year are the shower cabanas.

Personally for the long term I’m still dreaming of a more substantial shower unit. You can build an actual wooden shower cabana with real plumbing like those featured in this book of shower designs, The Outdoor Shower: Creative design ideas for backyard living, from the functional to the fantastic.

2 comments July 9th, 2008

Ditching the Lawn to Feed the Butterflies in Los Angeles

I’ve dreamed of re-landscaping with native plants for ages. But, like our decrepit bathroom, we just hadn’t the time or energy to get around to it. Until now.

This is just a long-winded account of what we did to reclaim our yard, under the guidance the many online tips from folks at Las Pilitas California native plant nursery. Hopefully I’ll write up a full-fledged guide shortly.

We never really watered our weedy lawn much, out of environmental consciousness and a little laziness. It managed to survive pretty well until one drought year when it went really brown. So finally one day I saw a crew of gardeners ripping out a lawn up the street (to re-sod — ew), and I had em rip out our remaining grass. Then to make sure all was REALLY dead, I watered for months and waited through the rainy season for anything to sprout, spraying nasty, evil chemicals to dispose of the rest. Rampaging weeds and invasive grasses are a sure way to ruin a native planting before you even start.

After much soul-searching, we murdered our 40ft eucalyptus tree so that it wouldn’t destroy our new native habitat with its thirst for all moisture in the soil and constant rain of leaves, seeds, blossoms and bark. I will miss the shade and smell, but not the daily sweeping. Here in Santa Monica we are frankly lucky we didn’t get protested for chopping a tree, even if it is an invader from Australia. We offed it swiftly.

I did a modest amount of research and at first it was hard to track down NATIVE plants at the local nurseries. Everyone sells so called drought resistant stuff, but almost all of it is from the Mediterranean, Australia and Africa. The same handful of species is sold everywhere. It just doesn’t make sense — why not salvage a little of the local biodiversity with perfectly suited plants that need little or no care? I suppose it is just the economics of nurseries — they all get plants from the same national distributors and customers all ask for the same silly plants.

Finally I found this quite cool California native plant nursery with a brilliantly informative website (laspilitas.com) with easy online ordering and delivery. I picked out critter-friendly buckwheats, salvias, manzanitas and more. I carefully (more or less) diagrammed the mature sized plants across the yard. I contoured a couple of modest mounds into the yard. I even filled the Civic with 700 pounds of rocks to welcome the plants. The sprouts arrived by UPS, surprisingly tiny and a little smooshed. I planted the suckers as planned. Contrary to every gardening instinct (and against advice from our neighbor the professional landscaper) I followed the instructions from the native plant people – no soil amendment, no roto-tilling, no organic matter, no fertilizer, no composting. Just stuck the plants into the hard, minimally disturbed ground. Ok.

And now time to mulch. The one things the native plants do need is a few inches of wood chips to recreate the natural organic matter that would cover the ground in the wild. I carefully calculated how much I’d need and started looking for sources. It was gonna cost at least $500 to either buy the dyed crap they sell at Home Depot, or to get some nicer stuff delivered. It would cost more than I’d paid for plants and rocks! The City of LA also offers free mulch that you can pick up at several yards throughout the city, though I read reports that it often has a bunch of trash in it. Then I found a tree trimming company that would, for FREE dump FREE wood chips and it was completely FREE, including the FREE delivery. I was mighty excited about the free part. The minimum they’d deliver was a bit more than I needed, but I figured I’d easily find some spots in the backyard that could use a little mulch.

Now, in retrospect, I now know that they dumped much more than the minimum portion I’d requested. But when it arrived I had no idea. I had already assumed the pile would seem astonishingly huge – I have no point of reference. But as the pile slid out of the dump truck, I started to feel a little sick. The mountain was much larger than our car – longer, wider, higher. Which sounds kinda big, but, really, when it is in your driveway and you can’t park there any more or use your gate, and all of the neighbor kids want to climb in it and everyone who passes points and starts asking questions, it is impossibly big and seems like a big mistake. And it radiated that nice piny Christmas smell, but multiplied by a gazillion so that the off-gassing made my eyes burn for days, even inside the house. Neighbors were gawking and some passers-by were outright laughing, though I may have been suffering from a little paranoia.

So for a week (during a nasty heat wave) I frantically and desperately hauled wood chips around the yard trying to make the mountain get smaller and prove that I wasn’t a friggin idiot for getting it all dumped there. And, besides, I had to make room to park the car, and get the trash bins out of our gate. Thanks to Mr. Peterson, my neighbor, who witnessed the delivery and lent me a wheelbarrow. I guess I had thought I was going to use a bucket to spread the stuff or something. Yea, right.

Well the pile was a crazy hodge-podge of wood. The stuff on top that I spread on my yard first was too big—giant chunks of pine that were really bright colored and it made the yard look like I was getting ready to light a bon-fire. You couldn’t even see the plants. It was sad and embarrassing. On the other side of the wood pile I found stuff that was equally unacceptable – really papery dusty crap that had mixed with some leaves so it was composting and steaming. A woman actually knocked on my door concerned that the giant dangerous looking wood pile was spontaneously catching fire. Somehow, by accident, I realized that if I spread the composty stuff on top of the absurdly huge pine chunks, it made neither look too ridiculous. So I dumped another layer on the yard. Not bad. Then I spent another few days dumping woodchips in every free nook in the back yard. Finally in the middle of the pile I found some really nice, modest sized, reddish wood chunks, just the kind any normal, self respecting suburbanite would love to have in their front yard. But no more space. Oh well.

I managed to use about 2/3s of the damn pile. Really. It was amazing to see the pile actually shrink, against all odds, as I dragged barrow-full after barrow-full around the yard.

The remaining pile mocked me for another three weeks as I posted Free Mulch on Craig’s List and met about a dozen very interesting people who also like mulch.

Two weeks after the first application, the wood chips settled and the color and scent actually became pleasant. The plants nearly all survived (surpassing all hopes) and after only a couple of months have grown nicely, begun bloom and attract some beautiful native butterflies and birds. I just want to hang out in the yard and water it to show it a little love, but I can’t because it doesn’t need water and in fact it would kill it.

3 comments July 8th, 2008

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