Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rebuilding a shower, from the base up.

Hey, guys--I'm back! We're working on a shower in Prattville that had a leak. All the customer could say was that it was somewhere in one of the walls. He ruled out the wall with the valve in it, because the damage was in the side wall and the wall opposite the shower head--a glass wall on top of a knee wall, between the tub and the shower. Yep--my guess is the knee wall was the main problem. Here's what it looked like when I arrived on the job. That's not me in the photo. I do wear shorts, but I don't wear flip-flops when I'm on duty.

The customer thought the base was okay, so wanted us to build on top of it. I'd have rather seen the shower before it was wrecked, but the customer originally was going to do it all himself. You can see where the knee wall goes--between the tub and the shower. And on top of the knee wall, we'll install a glass panel.

Watch as we reconstruct this shower--from the base to the glass door. Hey--it's gotta look better than this--right? And you'll learn what we do that makes our showers as "leak-proof" as a shower can be.

As we worked on the shower walls, the customer decided he wanted a new base. Shower bases are not kept in stock. Our deadline is "before Christmas." Whew. We were able to get our favorite saleswoman, Faith Nichols at Noland Co., to order us an acrylic shower base ASAP. We ordered it on Wednesday, and it was in my nervous hands Friday afternoon. My plumber, Mike Smith, was kind enough to install the base on Saturday. We'd lost only two days, at the most, thanks to Faith and Mike. Wesley and Dave had pre-planned the walls when they found out we were swapping the base. They ran the WR (water-resistant) sheetrock, a layer of 6 mil Visqueen, and the tile backer board down the walls, stopping about a foot above the base. This allowed the plumber to remove the old base, put in the new, and we were ready to finish running the walls down to the base on Monday. Great planning, guys!
          And now you might ask, "Why do I consider our showers leak-proof?" Because of the layers. Few shower installers add the layer of Visqueen, which is a thick, tough, plastic, to the walls. They think the backer-board is enough. Usually, it is, but I like being better than "usual." On top of the Visqueen we put tile backerboard, in this case, a product from Hardie that's cementitious, water-proofed. We also seal the joints with tile mastic and fiberglass tape. And when we finish tiling we add sealer to the grout, making it as non-porous as it can get, which is the final step in our "leak-proof" shower installation. There are still weak points, of course--anything sticking out of the tile--grab bars, soap dishes, shower handles. These items are usually out of the main blast of the shower-head spray, however, but we still watch them closely, covering any exposed screw heads with silicone caulk, and being extra sure the grout is applied everywhere it's supposed to be applied.

Here's the newest member of our team, Shaun. Look at him, will you--two days on the job and he's already cutting tile. He even wipes it down before taking it inside. Good going, Shaun!

Here's a good view of the bedlam inside a bathroom as we try to meet our deadline. David is setting tile around the tub, Chris is handing a tile to Wesley, who can't be seen, and Shaun is . . . well, it looks like Shaun is supervising! The new guy has taken over! Ha-ha. Not really. Shaun is waiting for David to give him a measurement. Maybe he should pop David on the back with that rag to hurry him up. Hmm?

Here's David, wondering what that "pop" sound was.

And here's Wesley, checking out David's work.

And here's a good shot of David and Wesley, both at work, trying to get the shower to the point where we can have the glass men measure for the side wall and door. I think we're going to make it. The glass takes a week or more to come in, and they won't measure until the tile is up. That's why we've been rushing.

 Wesley's still hard at work.

Shaun isn't used to his boss man taking his picture. Get over it, Shaun. It's what I do.
And so--as you can see, I'm having too much fun. Then again, is there anything in life more fun than remodeling? Well . . . of course there is. But, work-wise, remodeling is one heck-of-a-lot-of fun.

Wesley is "buttering" one of the final tiles.

Chris is handing Wes a cut tile.

Wes installs the tile and Chris measures one of the tiles that surrounds the tub.
The shower tile is up, ready to be grouted.

The tile has been grouted. Now all we need to do is clean it good and wait for the glass to come in. We don't need to seal the tile because we added sealer to the grout instead of water, making it as durable and leak proof as it can be. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Gardening Hints and Helps

Gardening Hints and Helps

Insect Eating Plants
Part II


After I had some success with perennials in my yard, I moved on to vines—clematises, jasmines, Gloriosa lilies, passion flowers, and morning glories. I still have all of them, including the morning glories, which come up everywhere. I spend half of my weeding time in the garden weeding plants I started out there. The passion flowers are actually more difficult to keep down because their roots go really deep, but I grow them for the frittilary butterfly larvae to eat, as does my neighbor, Jo, across the street. Our little cul-de-sac is filled with orange fritillaries in the summertime. So pulling up a few passion flower vines and letting four to five of them run free, is part of my garden plan every year. The flowers are nice, too, but the huge, ugly caterpillars that turn into beautiful butterflies are the main draw.
After vines I moved on to tropicals, which had to be kept in containers. Now my gardening hours began climbing upwards. Container plants always take more work than vines and perennials, but I was having so much fun I didn’t care. I also expanded my cacti and moved on to other succulents—Pachypodia, Stapelia, Euphorbia, Adeniums, and such. After my container-grown plants passed 150, I kept right at it, adding tropical fruits. All of these were potted plants, so when I became interested in insect-eating plants, having a few more containers didn’t bother me. At one time I counted about 220 total containers I had scattered across my back yard. Yes—I had a problem, but there wasn’t an organization called Plants Anonymous, so I just kept on and on.
I must admit that I started growing insect-eating plants because they were so weird, so interesting, that I couldn't let them pass me by. Plus, I was sure my grandchildren would be interested in them. They were, and still are. I found an old, unused fish aquarium and began my saga with insect eaters. I’d buy a few Venus fly traps every year, put them in the aquarium, and by then end of summer they’d be dead. I’d toss them out and repeat the process the following summer. No matter what I did, the little plants died on me. Of course, I did everything you’re not supposed to do, learning as I went along. I fertilized them. Don’t! Fertilizer kills them. They live in bogs that have little nutrients in them. I watered them with tap water. Don’t! They will wither from the chemicals we use in our water. If you can’t collect rainwater, don’t even consider growing insect eaters. I fed them hamburger. Don’t! Fly traps eat living insects, not dead cow meat! I kept them inside. Don’t! They’re called “fly” traps because they eat flies. Unless you have an abundance of flies inside your house, put the fly traps outdoors, where they’ll at least have a chance to eat the way they’re supposed to do.
The fact that nowadays you can find the insect-eaters at Lowe’s (Lowe’s carries them almost year-round) and other large plant-carrying stores makes acquiring the bug-eaters easy. The hard part is keeping them alive.
            The two plants most available are Venus fly-traps and pitcher plants. Kids love Venus Fly-Traps—their little green jaws look so cool, so threatening. Looking at the tiny traps is eerie. Pitcher plants, on the other hand, don’t look threatening at all, but they’re pretty. I love them all.
            I tried to feed my first Venus fly-traps by hand, giving them dead, swatted flies, and, as I mentioned above, hamburger meat. Don’t do this. The traps need to be triggered by movement—the struggles of the captured insects as they try to escape release enzymes needed to digest the bugs. If the enzymes aren’t released, the little traps turn black, rot, and fall off. Once I realized they needed live bugs, I tried to wound the flies that I fed to the plants, so they’d wiggle around and trigger the plant’s natural devouring mechanisms. I had partial luck with this ploy, but it involved more work and more touching of half-dead flies than I really desired.
            When I bought my first pitcher plants, I ran into the same problem. I was certain they also needed live or partially live bugs to properly digest the little critters.

            The amazing thing is that it took me so long to solve the problem. I had the answer to the “bug” problem right in front of me in another of my favorite plants, and didn’t realize it. The answer was in my Stapelia plants, a type of succulent I’d been growing for ten years. 

Here is a great example of a Stapelia, and as you can see, the huge blossom, about 14 inches across, is beautiful. It's also the largest bloom of any plant I have. But the Stapelia will fool you. It stinks! It smells awful, and this is intentional. The plant is pollinated by flies who are attracted to the stench, mostly blue botflies, which will come to your house out of the skies by the hundreds if you have a Stapelia. The good thing is that these flies will lay their eggs on the Stapelia blossom, thinking it to be carrion, or rotting meat. A few days later when the blossom falls to the ground, the fly eggs hatch and the larvae die, because there is no proper food for it to eat. So even though the plant attracts flies, it also exterminates them. Neat, huh? But wait! There's more!

Here's another view of my Stapelia. I keep it in a hanging pot, and if you notice--next to it is a pot full of Venus fly traps and pitcher plants. I finally found the answer to feeding the fly traps and the pitcher plants. I finally used my brain and put the two differing plants next to each other. When I tried this experiment, the Stapelia were blooming, and the results were instantaneous. Flies flocked around all of the plants--the Stapelia and the bug eaters. The two types of insect-eaters got all the flies and other bugs they need. They flourished.
          If you have trouble finding a Stapelia--I had to get mine from a mail-order nursery--ask me and I'll give you a cutting. In two-three years you'll have a pretty good-sized plant. And when it blooms and your grandkids see the gorgeous blossom, ask them to smell it. Tell them how good it smells (but only to the flies) and watch their faces as they take a whiff. Then, go out and buy some insect-eaters.
         Here are the basic rules for raising insect eaters. Never, ever fertilize them. They must exist on bugs. Fertilizer will kill them. Plant them in sphagnum moss, not a pre-fertilized potting soil. In the summer I keep mine in 8 hours of full sun a day--they need 4-10 hours of good sunlight. I water mine with rainwater daily, from spring to fall. Once again--do not water insect eaters with city water--it will ultimately kill them--it has too many chemicals for them. I have a rain barrel just for my insect-eaters. I use it, too.
         In the fall, before the first frost, I bring these plants inside. I dig the fly traps up, put them in a freezer bag, and refrigerate them until spring. If you don't do this, you're liable to over-water them during the winter, which will kill or stunt them. They also need the cool temperatures of their native homeland, the South Carolina coast. That's why I refrigerate them. My pitcher plants don't seem to suffer being inside over the winter. They're so fat from all the bug-eating, they probably need the restricted diet that will come from being inside. I'm sure they'll get a few bugs from the other plants I bring in, but nothing compared to the feast of being next to a blooming Stapelia.

 Here is a view of my Stapelia, with a pot of insect-eaters on one side.

Another view of the insect-eaters--a clump of pitcher plants and two clumps of Venus fly traps.

Her is a pot of the second insect-eaters, on the other side of the Stapelia. See how luxuriant they are? They've been eating lots of bugs.

 Here's a close-up of the insect-eaters. This is dangerous ground for a bug to traverse.

Any plant that eats bugs is a friend of mine. I really do love these guys. That's why I make sure they have a huge selection of flies to choose from, brought to them by the Stapelia plant. If you decide to raise insect-eaters, please consider a Stapelia, too. It'll pay off in several ways--you'll have weird insect-eating plants and strange-looking, beautiful blooms that stink. What else could a gardener--or a grandkid--ask for?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gardening Hints and Helps. Insect Eating Plants.

Gardening Hints and Helps

Insect Eating Plants

            When I started this blog I promised that I’d touch on gardening every now and then, because I believe that plants and trees give a house character, make it more than a drab pile of bricks and wood. Raising plants and giving my own house character has been a pastime of mine for nearly 40 years. Some of you may know that I used to write a weekly column on gardening for the Prattville Progress and The Montgomery Independent, and then later on for the Master Gardener Newsletter. I’ve always loved plants, but in recent years have slowed down and cut back the time I put into them. A few years ago, for instance, I had over 200 potted plants—ones that had to be put in my greenhouse or Florida room every winter. The task of moving all those plants twice a year became too much for me. Of course, when I say “twice a year,” I’m being optimistic. My usual routine every spring was (still is) to begin taking my plants outside early—long before the last frost—and then bringing them back to the greenhouse. Not just one time, either. Some years I moved as many as 25 of those plants five times before the frost quit coming in. The ones I moved were the biggest, too--my lemon, the plumerias, etc., growing fast and needing larger pots every year. Impatience and unreasonable optimism have always been two of my failures. Recently, another failure has been my diligence in writing these columns—a failure I intend to rectify with this article on “Bug Eaters.”

         (Above is a picture of one of my hanging baskets filled with "bug eaters." On the left side is a clump of Venus fly traps, in the middle a group of very fat, well-fed pitcher plants, and on the right a skinny type of pitcher plant--one I found and tried this year for the first time.)

        (Above is a closeup of my Venus fly trap. At first I was worried that it might be too close to the pitcher plants, but as every Alabamian knows, there is no shortage of bugs here.) 

            I believe it was because of my grandchildren that I first began raising insect-eating plants with any seriousness. If you’ve read my 500 Opinions blog, you know that when I eat my meals, I usually eat one item at a time. It was the same way with me when it came to growing different types of plants. For the first fifteen years of my delayed adulthood . . . (In other words, the fifteen years after I turned thirty, up to the age of forty-five. I was a late bloomer. I was also an English major, so I have to use lots of flowery similes and metaphors in my writing) . . . As I was saying, for the first fifteen years of my delayed adulthood, the only plants I grew were vegetables. I saw no need to grow a plant unless it was edible, and I became quite good at raising tomatoes, peppers, greens, squash, eggplants, potatoes, okra, onions, etc. I tried broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, watermelons, and radishes, but never became good at raising them. Perhaps that’s why I love to eat vegetables—I had a lot of time and energy invested in them—too much to toss them in the garbage every night.
So, at about the age of 40, I came across a dying cactus. The poor thing had been left inside a vacant house I was remodeling, with no sun to speak of, and no water for months. I took the cactus home, gave it some water, and put it outside, in semi-shade. She lived. I was amazed. I was also sold on cacti. Any plants that tough, who were that interested in staying alive, were the plants for me. It meant they needed little care. I was sold. I began my cactus collection. I still have my first cactus, by the way. She’s now huge—a seven-foot monster, but I can’t let her go.
But about five years later, I felt a primal urge—I wanted more. I decided it was time for me to branch out (My goodness. There are a ton of symbolical words related to growing things, aren’t there?). I decided to try a class of plants other than the vegetables and cacti. The cacti were easy, but if you’ve ever raised vegetables, you know that they are not self-raising. Vegetables take constant work—checking for bugs, pulling invading weeds, checking the soil acidity, fertilizing, watering, and on and on. Anyone who plants and grows a vegetable plot more than ten-feet square, also knows how much work goes into raising your own food, and doesn’t mind paying decent money to a farmer at the local Farmers’ Market every summer. I don’t mind a bit. I realize they use pesticides, and I did not—I fought my bugs with fingers, a nearby coop full of chickens, crop rotation and companion-planting, and every little trick I could learn about keeping back the tide of insects (and soon you’ll understand my love of insect-eaters). Farmers also use tractors and herbicides to knock down weeds, while it was just me and my trusty hoe versus my own weeds. I learned from my father-in-law how a hoe needed to be filed down and protected with oil every week, to keep it sharp and hold the rust at bay. So, yes, I know how much work goes into raising vegetables, and when I purchase a large basket of gleaming, ripe tomatoes, I never utter a word of discontent. That farmer is doing me a favor, selling his or her vegetables to me at a small discount, not only avoiding the middleman, but getting them to me with just-picked ripeness, at the top of the plant’s flavor and health benefits. When summer comes and the Farmers’ Markets begin selling local produce, I spend 40-50 dollars a week on fruit and vegetables, alone—for just me and my wife. I buy berries, peaches, onions, potatoes, okra, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers—you name it—I’ll buy and eat it. I have a deal with one farmer to purchase a box of “second” tomatoes every week, the ones not quite pretty or ripe enough—or too ripe—to sell in a basket to picky tomato buyers. I take the box—about twenty pounds of tomatoes—home and as soon as I walk in the door, I start boiling them down for tomato juice, which my wife and I, after a huge glass of almost scalding, fresh-as-it-can-be juice,  drink every morning until the next batch comes in.
I’m having so much fun telling you how I came to grow insect-eating plants, I’ve veered off course. I think this article has blossomed into a two-parter. I’ll add a few more sentences, then continue next week.

(The hanging basket on the left is another group of my "insect eaters," both fly traps and pitcher plants. On the right is a basket of Stapelia, a succulent I now use to aid the bug eaters. The blossoms you see on the Stapelia haven't opened yet, but when they do, they are magnificent--and very strange. I'll tell you more next time.) 

After I made up my mind to try and grow plants other than vegetables and cacti—I had been taking care of a nice 20 by 40 vegetable garden for two years, and had about ten cacti at the time—I decided I wanted my next class of plants to be more work than cacti, but less work than vegetables. For that reason, I chose perennials. At this time I knew absolutely nothing about perennials—I didn’t even know the names of any. All I knew was that they were supposed to return every year, over and over again. This sounded like less work to me, so I got some books on growing perennials and jumped in with both feet. And now, all these years later, I realize that I couldn’t have made a better choice. Most of my perennials didn’t last forever, but some are still with me—my red-hot pokers; the baptisias; the coreopsis; my Echinacea—coneflowers; the gaillardias; three hibiscuses (Years ago, the cold weather here kept killing them. I’ve had these three 15-17 years. That’s when the weather here changed to longer, hotter summers, and milder winters.); irises; and Virginia spiderwort. I had good luck with hollyhocks, but they’re actually biennials. They were wonderful flowers, but I didn’t have the patience to wait two years for blooms. Do I need to slow down? Should I kick back, relax, and get into hollyhocks again? I do remember one thing about hollyhocks. No matter where I planted them, or how I marked the spot, when the little plants poked up the second year, I never had any idea what they were. I would study and study them for several weeks, and then my brain would finally function as it’s supposed to do. I’d run to get my plant diary, search through it, and find out, that, sure enough—I had put them there on purpose—they were my biennial hollyhocks—ugly as sin their first year, the crowning glory of the garden in their second. Weird plants. But then, so am I.
I may be forgetting some of my perennials, but the ones I mentioned stick in my mind. I did find out, of course, that growing perennials was not less work than growing vegetables. Their constant, year-after-year blooms have been worth the work, though. And I promise—that in two weeks I’ll finish this article and tell you about my trials and errors growing insect-eating plants. Until then—go grow a thing or two. Not only will your home look prettier and have more character, you’ll be happier in the long run. And . . . as usual . . . I need to take my own advice.