Saturday, August 4, 2012

Owning a home is sometimes like owning a white elephant

If you're considering buying a house, don't let yourself get carried away by the romance of owning the roof above your head, of being regent in your own castle. Sure, that's all a nice position to be in, but it isn't free. You get to choose how to keep the forces of entropy at bay: pay someone to do it for you, or DIY. I choose DIY, as that's the only ideologically acceptable option for a stingy bastard like me.

This post may sound a bit whiny, and you may be tempted to roll your eyes and mutter, "First world problems!" This is true - I wouldn't seriously consider giving up living in a house even if the workload were doubled. In fact, I like the unkempt look and wouldn't be too troubled by conceding some battles to the forces of entropy. My reasons for doing yard work at all have more to do with enjoying the meandering workout that it gives me than with having a home magazine-worthy garden. Think of the whining here as hyperbole. I'm looking for things to complain about in this post.

A tangle of branches and stems cut from my Brazilian pepper tree. A season or two ago the Wisteria would have been the source of a tangled heap like this one.

I have at least three distinct compost heaps in my garden. This one is probably fastest, likely due to the fact that I feed it clippings from my shredder, and probably also due in part to my feeding it a dilute solution of urea at night. It's nice not to have to buy compost, but they do take up a fair amount of space.

I collect heaps of plant matter on my stoep until I have enough for a session with the shredder. The two far heaps will go on the compost heap pictured above, while the one next to my dog will require some alternative treatment. They're cuttings from my lavender bushes, and they smell quite strongly of camphor, which I suspects upsets the critters in the compost heap. (An earlier batch of lavender cuttings took forever to rot to an appreciable degree.)

The Brazilian pepper tree branches that are too thick to put through the shredder become firewood after a year or more. (It takes a while for the wood to become dry enough to burn without excessive smoke.) It's surprising how much firewood a few pruned branches can yield.

My driveway is covered with pebbles, but over the years (starting before I moved in, four years ago) the pebbles have become compacted into the soil below. It's likely that the principal cause of this is the lack of a plastic sheet below the pebbles. As a result, weeds (and other welcome, but unintended plants) grow in the middle where car tyres don't squish them.

The Brush Cherry on the left likes to scrape against my car, so I have to prune it back now and then.

The gate motor has been giving trouble since the start. Its favourite party trick is to open the gate, then to refuse to close it again for several minutes, and when it finally does, to give up halfway and claim that the battery is "faulty".

The wooden postbox swells in winter, so as to become difficult to open by pulling on the sliding bolt. The handle, of course, has broken off years ago when I had left the postbox door open to dry, and then absent-mindedly opened the gate, ramming the handle and bending the bolt holding it to the door. When I tried to bend the bolt straight, the handle broke right off.

My plum tree has suffered a sever split sometime in its lifetime. Judging by its stem it must be a rather old tree - certainly several decades old. One stem fell to the left in this picture, where it seems to have rooted and become essentially a second tree. The other leans quite precariously to the right, and it may be only a matter of time before it, too, falls.

I tend to get entangled in the plum tree's branches when I'm in the triangular area bordered by the low fence. So I don't go there often, and as a result weeds grow freely. This area is full of pebbles, so it isn't really suited for expanding my vegetable garden. To do so, I'd first want to sieve the pebbles out. But doing so requires being inside the plum tree triangle, and getting entangled... so I haven't (yet).

The wall in the background is new. The reason for its being new deserves a whole post of its own. The racist jerk builders (the neighbours picked them) who did the work left bits and pieces of rubble (pictured further below) in the area, which I collect as I find it.

A swimming pool is a pleasant luxury in the peak of summer, but I have strong doubts whether it's worthwhile having one. Maybe if one has kids (I don't).

A swimming pool eats chlorine. You get to choose in which form you feed it chlorine (okay, or maybe ozone), but unless you hulk out on a miniature wetland, you're going to have to keep it disinfected and clear of algae. I haven't optimized my pool, so it costs me about R400 per month in granular chlorine and electricity in the height of summer. (Far less - maybe half - in winter.)

Summer is also the season of almost daily topping up the unoptimized pool. On a hot windy day I can lose a centimeter or more.

The leaf skimmer has broken off the inlet port twice now, presumably when the aquabot bumped into it when the hose was long enough to let it reach. Pool parts are surprisingly expensive for what amounts to a small bit of PVC. I suspect there's just not enough competition in the local pool market to allow a significant consumer surplus.

Speaking of consumer surplus, the price of a new aquabot is more than I'm willing to pay. Mine broke: the lead ballast finally wore through the bottom part of the aquabot body, allowing the ballast to fall out, which left the aquabot as a whole buoyant. That caused it to float at the surface, doing its little chup-chup-chup dance with nothing but water and air to suck at.

Aside: does anyone know what aquabot body parts are made of? It seems too flexible to be PVC, but I don't know how to identify this plastic material reliably enough to know how to patch up the worn-through part.

With no aquabot in action, some leaves accumulate at the bottom. I sweep them around with the pool brush regularly, and eventually they find their way close enough to the weighed-down end of the pool hose that they get sucked into the weir basket. I'll have to fix the aquabot quite soon now, before summer, as this mitigatory practice will not suffice when the algae can photosynthesize with abandon.

One windy winter's night I heard a "swoosh" from outside. The following morning I discovered that that's the sound a bougainvillea makes when it falls over. I cut nearly all of it back, and I'm undecided whether I should keep it at all. The only reason I haven't yet removed it completely is that one stem still seems secure and healthy, and it's very pretty when it blossoms.

Unfortunately a bougainvillea has thorns, which makes it a nasty plant to work with. I simply left the cuttings where I dropped them, next to the deck, and simply burned them after a braai. That way I didn't have to fight the thorns to get the branches into the shredder - the opening to my fireplace is much, much larger (and hence more permissive) than the orifice leading to the shredder's blades.

Do you like ivy? Or Virginia creeper? I think they're pretty too, but my oh my are they aggressive plants. I decided rather to clear the back garden wall completely than to have to fight these plants season after season. They're tricky to get into the shredder though: the ivy because the bulk of the stems are so soft, and the creeper because it gets so entangled with itself.

When I moved in, the Virginia creeper had covered nearly the entire north wall of my house. It had attached itself to the eaves of the roof and from there had grown between the gutter and fascia boards, and even under the roof tiles into the roof space. Last year I decided to deracinate this creeper, so had to dig up the bed next to the wall and in places also had to lift paving blocks to get at the roots.

Now Nasturtiums have taken over where the creeper once was. If I'm ever in a fix for salad, I know where to go. The snails like it too, but Nasturtiums seem able to grow faster than snails can eat, so they're mostly whole.

Most wood doesn't do too well outdoors, and this arch is no exception. I'm guessing that it was untreated pine, simply painted. It has now rotted, and at some point the top of the arch broke, only to be held up by the then still present creeper stems. Now I counter the tension from the regular-looking washing line that hangs between the arch and the added-on bathroom, with a rope that doubles as replacement washing line. One of the formal lines, of course, broke, having been weakened by years of UV.

My advice? Live in an apartment if you don't crave a garden. It should be a craving, not just a vague desire for a manicured lawn and a few potted plants. Alternately, you could pave your garden, if that's your aesthetic. Or be wealthy, and hire gardeners.

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