Saturday, April 23, 2011

Adventures in Landscaping

After losing a tree to wind and rain this fall, our yard is more bare than when we bought our house a year ago.  Since plants take a long time to grow, I decided that we must get our landscaping started this year.  So, in my normal neurotic fashion, I assembled a giant pile of books and combed the internet obsessively for the last few months.  I even attended a great event put on by the Master Gardeners of Delaware County.  It was a great series of lectures which included a wonderful talk about the "bone structure" of your landscape. After cobbling together a plan, we finally took the plunge this week and began our new adventure into landscaping.

Since I always try to keep mother nature in mind, I found myself most influenced by sustainable gardening and edible gardening.  My plan is to create a landscape that will thrive on what nature provides and will be as self-sufficient as possible.  This means that I am looking for native plants or plants that are adapted to our Eastern Pennsylvania climate.  I also really love the idea of growing food, so I am using as many edible plants as possible.  Some other influences are a desire to invite wildlife (birds, butterflies) and a desire to create a magical space for our future children.  Also, in keeping with the enviro-friendly aspect, I did some research into landscaping for energy efficiency.  

So here's the stage one plan (i.e. giving our land some bones):

In the front yard I am taking out our small ornamental allergy factory and putting in an apple tree.

Along the side of our house we are creating a natural fence of berry bushes, as well as adding a cherry tree.  These will help with that energy efficiency issue in that it will give our house some shade and a break from the wind (and boy do we get a lot of wind). We will have a blueberry, 2 raspberries, 2 blackberries, 2 elderberries, a balaton cherry tree, and two nanny berries.

Now, I have never been so proud of a pile of dirt before in my life, but after renting a rototiller, unloading 3,000 pounds of mushroom compost, and distributing 3,000 pounds of mulch, that is the most beautiful pile of dirt I have ever seen!

It even forms an exclamation mark! (Although the dot is just the leftover mulch that will be distributed to the trees that are coming, so it won't be so exciting forever.)

We did come up with some ingenious ways to spread the dirt around.  We picked up the compost in a rented truck.  To distribute it, we backed up over the tilled row and scooped out some, then pulled forward five feet and scooped out more and kept doing that until it was all unloaded.  A quick raking to spread it out and it was done.  That saved considerable time and effort.  We were able to pretty much just push it off the back of the truck rather than scoop it all by hand--with shovels of course!  The mulch was delivered and dumped in one pile.  To make spreading it around easier, I grabbed a rubbermaid tote and we scooped the mulch up with the tote and then dumped it in piles along the row, spreading it with a rake as we went.  Who needs a wheelbarrow when you've got a tote?  It was quick and easy.  We also put a layer of weed cloth down over the compost before laying the mulch, so our future weeding duties should be kept to a minimum.

Here is a really poorly done mock-up of our projected front yard:

The back yard is still being debated, but we have purchased a sugar maple for the southwest corner of the house and a river birch for the southern side.  These will arrive Monday afternoon.  We chose the river birch because our land slopes downward and creates some very moist soil on the southern side (hence the fallen tree last fall).  A river birch will soak up the extra water during heavy rains, but will also tolerate the dryness between rains in the summer.  I also chose it because it will provide some shade to the house in the summer, but is not too dense to block the radiant heat of the sun in the winter.  This balance of shade and sun on the southern side was a key factor for energy efficiency.  I read that the loss of the sun's heat in the winter would negate the savings from the shade in the summer, so it is important to choose something that will let a lot of sun through in the winter.  The southwest corner is where you can go for some serious shade tree action.  

The rest of our back yard is a slope down to a weird squarish section of lawn next to our driveway.  I want to eventually terrace the hillside into raised beds/steps and use that area for vegetable gardening.  The squarish area will eventually be a space for future kiddos.  I want to plant a weeping mulberry for a magical, natural playhouse (complete with yummy fruit snacks!) and plant something that will create some narrow shade/privacy screen (not sure what yet).  Eventually I imagine there will be a small play structure and/or sandbox down there.

I am also planting some red osier dogwoods to serve as a natural fence between our townhouse neighbor's yard and ours.

Here is a current picture and a projected mock-up:



(Note: maple, dogwood, and river birch tree pics are from and weeping mulberry is from

Of course, it will take years for the trees to grow to those sizes, but that is the general end result that is in mind.  You also have to imagine that those are terraces and they will be full of veggie plantings.  I can just picture pumpkins and strawberries cascading down the hillside and lots of tomato plants, carrots, radishes, and more!  We're really trying to make the most of the small amount of land that we have.

Well, those are the plans for the bones of our property.  The fill-in will take place over time...the general idea being to grab plants that will work around the bones, be native and/or edibles, etc.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kitten Nugget Playhouse

It all started with a Tyson Chicken Nugget box from Costco. Not realizing what we had in our hands we packed our Cotstco items in the box and brought them home. It was love at first sight for Selina. We had barely taken the items out of the box before she jumped in. And then I noticed that it looked like a little kitty house. We had brought home two of the boxes, but Selina loved them so much we let her keep one before hauling the other out to the recycling with the rest of the boxes. Over time it became the "kitten nugget" box. Her favorite place. She would sleep there, play there, and when no one was looking drag her little toy mice inside. She could paw at it without punishment.
(The original "kitten nugget" box)

Fast forward a few weeks. I realized that the kitten nugget box was nice and modular, and well built. It would withstand being stacked and even having holes cut into it. They would be perfect for making a low-cost kitty playhouse. So we started looking for more Tyson boxes at Costco. For six months we saw none. Then, on a Monday, I saw a mountain of Tyson Chicken boxes freshly stacked in the box bin of Costco. I grabbed 6 (5 to add to Selina's for her new playhouse and 1 as a present to my in-law's new kittens). I had only bought one or two items, so I looked rather strange leaving Costco with a cart full of boxes, but no one said a word.

On the way home I stopped and bought some duct tape. When I got home I pulled out a utility knife and got to work. In no time I had a kitten nugget playhouse. It was kind of hideous, but the kitty loved it. I decided that I would paint it or cover it in fabric or contact paper to make it look nicer, but it was another 6 months before I found a contact paper that I liked well enough. It sat in our living room in all of its duct tape glory for quite a while. It was a great conversation starter and did I mention the kitty was happy?

So, here is how I made the kitten nugget playhouse. I had six boxes and decided to construct mine two wide and three high, but this can be adapted to any configuration you choose. The key is to know what you want your final configuration to be and start from the bottom and work your way up. You also want to consider the path for the kitties to climb through the playhouse, as you will need to cut before assembling. I made mine so that there was a climb-through box and a solid-floor box on each level. From the bottom level the cats can go up to the second level through the left side box and then sit on the right side. From the second level they can go up through the right side box and then sit on the left side. From there they can go up onto the top of the playhouse, sitting on top of the right side. You also need to make sure that you cut on the connecting sides so that the cats can walk through to the next box like so:

Since I did two wide, the left box gets a cut in its right side and the right box gets a cut in its left side. If you did more than two wide the far left and far right boxes would be treated the same, but any middle boxes would have cuts on both sides. Here are step-by-step instructions for my configuration.

I took the first box and cut a square (about 8"x8") in the top and on the right side. I took
another box and cut a square on the left side. I duct taped these two boxes together so that the squares lined up (I just eyed all of these cuts, the kitties like things to rub against them so I didn't worry about it being perfect). *Note* all of these steps are working left to right.

I grabbed another box and cut a square in the bottom and on the right side. This was duct taped to a box with a square on the left and top sides. I stacked this set on top of the other set so that the bottom hole from this set lined up with the top hole from the bottom set, then taped them together. I didn't get a picture of this step, but here is a picture of the completed playhouse where you can kind of see how the holes are lined up. As you can see, the cats really love it!

(Yes that is a nerf dart in there. Our cats love to chase nerf darts and they take all of their treasures into their house.)

I used the original kitten nugget box for the top left corner. I cut a hole in its top and its right side. The last box got a hole in its bottom and left sides. These were taped together, placed on top of the others and taped on. Amazingly it has held up very well. Stability-wise, I would recommend if you have small children who might grab or climb on this then you should anchor it to the wall (just screw through the back into studs), especially if you go higher than the 2x3 configuration. Mine is just up against a wall and I've had no problems with it.

Obviously, it is kind of ugly just as is. You will probably want to cover it. Covering it is just like wrapping a present. Contact paper is quick and easy, but it won't be completely smooth. You could probably use batting and fabric to upholster it for a smoother look. Another option would be paint. The possibilities are endless. I used contact paper, in a color similar to our walls with a subtle tone-on-tone pattern. After taking pictures, I finished mine off by writing "Kitten Nuggets" under the top-left opening. Everyone said it just wasn't right without those words...And here is the finished project (without the words):

The kitties love their house and I love that it didn't cost $200. It has been pretty durable and I think it will last for many years to come. The best part is you can make it blend into your home decor instead of having obvious cat furniture that is ugly and obtrusive. Not bad for less than $10.