Ticks, Ticks, and more Ticks

It’s well into tick season and for many, getting outdoors means dealing with ticks.  Not only are they annoying little creepy-crawlies, they are also vectors for many different diseases.

According to the CDC, the following disease/tick species associations are notweworthy in the United States (they are not necessarily exclusive to these particular tick species and there are likely to be more diseases, too): Continue reading Ticks, Ticks, and more Ticks

May Pocket Prairie

My pocket prairie is coming alive this year. With more reliable rain and a little more time for things to establish, I’m getting a lot of neat flowers. Not even close to all of the ones I planted, though. The perennials pictured were planted as already mature plants, while the annuals were all planted from seed. I planted many perennials from seed last fall that will not flower until 2013 at minimum.

Mexican HatIndian Blanket

Pitcher Sage

Drummond Phlox

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Clasping Coneflower and Lemon Mint

Giant Coneflower

Partridge Pea

Annual Sunflower

Annual Sunflower

Caterpillar on Gayfeather

Photo Gear

I’ve got a vacation coming up, and I plan on spending a good portion of my time learning some photography. The professional photographer I’ll be learning from suggested I get a few items. I already knew I needed a decent tripod. He suggested some filters for me. This post isn’t about the filters…I’m enough of a photography newbie that I don’t feel in a position to review those.

This post is about the tripod and ball head that was my number one priority.

I picked up a set of Flashpoint F-1228 carbon fiber legs. They’re a full 60″ tall, so I can use them standing up easily (I’m 5’8″). They’re 4 section telescoping legs, so they can get pretty short.

The ball head is a Slik AF-1100E trigger-style ball head. Yes, it’s heavier than a standard ball head. But what you lose in weight gain, you make up for in quick adjustability. Squeeze the trigger, aim the camera, then let go. Great for making quick aiming of the camera for wildlife and avoiding the hassle of turning knobs.

After I ordered these two items, I found I needed to order an adapter to make them play nice. Sigh…the disadvantage of living in a little backwoods town without a decent photo shop. I had to order one of these Manfrotto adapter plates to make everything work.

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Here’s a shot of everything together, but with the center column not extended. With the legs extended fully, I don’t need to use the center column for my height. So there’s a little extra height to play with in case someone taller uses the tripod or if I don’t have the legs fully extended, but need some adjustability quickly.

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Here’s that Slik ball head and the adapter. You can see the big trigger. All you have to do is squeeze and you can move the ball head how you need.

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The center column extension comes off if you want to shave some weight -or-

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drop the camera really low. This is a good position for macro work, or for lying prone for wildlife photography.

Speaking of adjustability, here’s how those legs spread out so wide.
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Those little tabs pull out a bit and there are three notches for the legs.

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And then they snap into place at the notches to hold the adjustment.

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This is that Manfrotto adapter plate I was talking about. Takes the 3/8″ bolt on the tripod legs down to the 1/4-20 bolt that screws into the ball head or the camera. This was quite likely a problem because of the disparity in weight capacities of the tripod and the ball head. This tripod is rated at 17.5lb and the ball head at 6.5lb.

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Here’s the other side of the ball head, and you can see the quick release lever on top and the pivot lock lever just below it. The pivot lever just lets you pivot the camera on top of the ball head. All ball head adjustments are done via the trigger release.

Now that I’ve got the pictures of the actual gear out of the way, now it’s time to show some pictures of the stuff I was taking pictures of in the yard.
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These pictures were all taken with the kit lens. Unfortunately, I don’t have a macro lens, so this is as close as I’m probably going to be able to get. I’ve been working on getting a wildflower bed established this year from seed. I’ve been getting some nice flowers, but the coverage has been mostly weak on them. I will be putting more seed down this fall, and I’m thinking of doubling the amount. I want there to be more flowers than grass.

green zebras

green zebras
I’m pretty excited about my green zebra tomatoes. They’re looking beautiful.

connecticut field pumpkin
My pumpkin is already beginning to turn. It’s a pretty big one, too. I did a lot of trimming of the vine because I didn’t want many wimpy pumpkins. I left a couple on, but this is the only one that has survived. I think it’ll be a bigun.

I also have some other melons hiding in the garden.
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This one is a small ananas melon. I actually have a few of these, still.

And finally, the sentinel looking over my garden.
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I have no idea if he really does anything to keep critters out, but better safe than sorry I guess. I’ve had him for years to keep birds from eating my flowers from balcony planters in apartments. He did a reasonable job at that.

2010 Gardens Update

It’s been a little while since my last post. Forgive me, as I’ve been busy. The semester ended, and just afterward, I spent a week visiting family out of state.

I had hoped for some new GPS adventures from my trip, but the weather was rotten when I had time to get out, and when the weather was good and the dirt was drying out, I was busiest visiting with folks. Sigh…maybe another time. I had high hopes for enjoying new trails (to me).

When I came home, I found my gardens in need of their first weeding of the season. The wife and I had found our first zucchinis and cucumbers of the year, too.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

Here’s how things looked before pulling all the weeds (mostly grass).

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

And how it looked afterwards.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

We had a little surprise waiting for us…passionflowers.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

The vine just grew up right along the garden fence. So, I decided to train it along the fence to enjoy the flowers.

The pumpkin vine is going pretty crazy, but only a couple little pumpkins on it. Here’s the biggest of them. I think I’ll have to support it so its weight doesn’t strangle the vine hanging from the fence.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

Our herbs look pretty great right now. We had trouble with some, though. The thyme and cilantro didn’t come up this year. The oregano has been difficult, but I’ve got ONE seedling I’m trying to nurse until it’s large enough to put in the garden. The basil looks great, and we’ve been making use of it. We also have pineapple sage, for which my wife has been searching for uses because it’s doing really well. We have regular sage, too, but it’s not quite big enough to start using yet.

The stevia is getting to a point where I can start using it. I think I’ll use it to sweeten my next batch of iced tea.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

Most of the others are coming along great. Most of the tomatoes are really going along. The pink ponderosas seem a little slower, and the green zebra is also a little slow (although it does still have some tomatoes on it). The early girls, cherry tomatoes, and the Lowes special are all going quite well. The peppers and eggplants are being slow, and they’re going to take awhile. The tomatillos are going to be exceptionally prolific producers.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

Our small wildflower bed is fun, too. It’s not really thick with flowers right now, but it’s got quite a number of small ones. Some of the earliest flowers are already going to seed, so I’m hopeful the flowers really take off next year. As it appears many of the flowers are biennial, I think I’m going to plant another bag of seed on the area this fall/winter so I get some biennial flowers every year. I really am not entirely sure what all was in the seed mix I got, so I’m always surprised when something new comes up. I also planted a bunch of sunflowers among these as well as some bee balm. This bed should be producing all season long with all sorts of different flowers.

2010 vegetables Memorial Day weekend

Here are a few closeups of different things I’ve been getting in this bed.

wildflowers

wildflowers

wildflowers

wildflowers

In other news, I had a friend over the other day and we saw an exceptionally LARGE rabbit. It was so large it looked like it may have been a domestic rabbit. But, its markings were certainly wild type. We suspected a swamp rabbit, but my location is a dry, sandy upland area and the habitat didn’t make sense. After doing some reading about swamp rabbits, I learned that they can and will venture rather far from water (up to 2km according to one source I found).

That puts a swamp rabbit within the realm of possibility. There’s a perennial stream approximately 1-2mi from the house, a seasonal stream much closer, and a rather large (1/4-1/2 acre) pond down the street. The rabbit was muching some of the lush grass getting overspray from my vegetable garden. I’ll be setting one of my cameras to attempt to get a better picture of this rabbit. If I get one, and it is indeed a swamp rabbit, I’ll be posting a more in-depth article about swamp rabbits.

Best of Texas Backyard Habitat

For this Earth Day 2010, I am making a commitment to get my backyard certified as a Best of Texas Backyard Habitat.

Thankfully, I have about .8 acre, so it will be relatively easy to meet the requirements of the certification program.

What do I need to incorporate?  Well, there’s a list of things you need.

  • An obviously native plant habitat. Volunteers will not count plants to see if you have a majority of native plants. If there are more than two plants listed in the Invasive Exotic Species section of this webpage, we will reserve the right to deny certification as a Best of Texas Backyard Habitat.
  • Food must be available year round. Feeders alone will not be accepted but should there be a time period when food is not available from plants, feeders would then be required.
  • Water MUST be provided in a way that is useable and reliable for the animal. Water should be kept fresh.
  • You must be taking active measures to control cats, House Sparrows and English Starlings on your property. This could include, but is not limited to:
    • Keeping your cat indoors and encouraging your neighbors to do the same.
    • Monitoring nest boxes for evidence of House Sparrows or English Starlings.
    • Using feeds that sparrows and starlings dislike, etc.
  • You must be participating in at least six of the following resource conservation measures:
    • Establishing a rain garden or buffer to filter storm water
    • Using drip soaker hose instead of sprinkler
    • Xeriscape plantings
    • Irrigating sparingly and only in early mornings or evenings
    • Planting deciduous trees along the southern exposure of the house
    • Eliminating chemical use
    • Capturing roof rainwater
    • Mulching
    • Reducing or eliminating lawn areas
    • Removing invasive exotics
    • Keeping your cat indoors
    • Composting yard and food waste

– from the Best of Texas Backyard Habitat website

The biggest thing I need to work on would be providing water for wildlife. My property is on a very dry upland site, so there is no existing water here. There’s a pond down the street in someone’s yard, but I doubt that counts. I will need to figure out how I’ll pull this one off reasonably well.

I’ve already got cat control taken care of. My own cats are inside-only, and I have a leash for the youngest because she does like it outside. I also do trap-neuter-release of the neighborhood ferals to try to keep the population in check.

I seem to have to deal with some of the plantings in my flowerbeds, though. Nandina was suggested to my wife and I as an option for our front bed. But now I find out that it’s considered an invasive here in Texas. Looks like I’m going to be figuring out what to replace it with.

I want to put a big shade tree on the southern part of the yard to shade the house and the patio area. My wife hasn’t been too keen on the idea, but maybe this will help with my reasoning and convince her to let me do it. I had been thinking of planting a southern magnolia for its flowers, but since this program recommends deciduous trees, maybe I’ll consider a maple that will contribute to the organic material in the soil.

We also plan on installing a couple of rain barrels to capture rainwater from our roof. It can be quite wet here during the cooler months, but that’s followed by a hot, dry summer. Storing rainwater would help out with our gardens a lot. That will primarily be vegetable gardens, though, because we try hard to plant native drought-tolerant plants where we can.

We also compost our yard and food waste. We have a 110 gal compost bin we’re working on. We’ve only just started on it, so it’s not very full yet. We also have a large brush pile in the back with branches and other yard waste from gardening efforts. I’ll be running it all through a wood chipper to create my own mulch and contribute to the compost bin.

In all, with my large yard (partially wooded) that provides many food plants for wildlife, I won’t have to undergo too many changes to earn certification under this program. I’d hope by the end of the summer I’d have the water situation figured out. Finding a replacement for the Nandinas shouldn’t take me too long.

Building a Pergola

This has been in the makings since my wife and I bought our first home in 2008. When we bought the place, it was new, and the builder hadn’t bothered to do anything with the yard. No grass, no landscaping, nothing. It was just a bare sandy lawn. We decided then that we were going to make this place look nice while we lived here.

This is what it looked like when we moved in:
Backyard & Patio Building
I was beginning to lay out the patio and pour the concrete footings to prepare for the pergola nearly 2yrs ago.

We got a couple tons of flagstone delivered to make the patio.
Backyard & Patio Building

Then prepared the base by mixing portland cement with our native sand.
Backyard & Patio Building

We wet the mix down as we laid each stone.
Backyard & Patio Building

Before long, we had a patio.
Backyard & Patio Building

I mortared all of the joints, but I have no pics of that. It was tedious work, actually.

Skip forward to 2010. Patio is done and we have all the lumber to build the pergola. Construction began by installing the posts by mounting brackets onto the bolts that were sunk into the footings 2yrs ago.
Pergola Construction
Pergola Construction

Then we had to measure and cut the wood for the beams.
Pergola Construction

We started by going around the perimeter to plumb all of the posts close to each other. They’re not perfect, but you can’t tell.
Pergola Construction

Then we started getting the rest of the beams installed.
Pergola Construction

Taking a break after assembling some long 20+ft beams.
Pergola Construction

Using hurricane straps to join two pieces together to form a long beam.
Pergola Construction

Getting some of the last beams installed was a little tricky. Those long ones tended to be warped or bowed and took some muscle to get into place.
Pergola Construction

This is the view from the back door. The main structural elements are installed. What’s left is primarily detail work, but there are still some minor supports that need to be installed yet.
Pergola Construction

Measuring out some corners to cut off for aesthetics. We want it to look pretty, right?
Pergola Construction

The tops have been cut off of the posts with a sawzall and some of the corners have been trimmed. It’s starting to clean up!
Pergola Construction

Close-up of those trimmed corners. All of the overhanging beams will get this treatment to make ’em look purty.
Pergola Construction

The pergola isn’t finished yet. I intend to install benches into the corners (the four sides each get entry/exit points), and the corners will then be covered with lattice to improve shade and allow vines to grow. Over the top, we’re going to put up a temporary string net to support the vining plants until they get woody enough to support themselves.

But before we plant anything, the whole structure will be painted white to match the trim of the house and offer a bit of a country feel to it.

We’re working on a stepping stone path from the pergola to the vegetable garden with some of the leftover stone from the patio. I’m tilling up the soil for the walkway, sinking the stones, and then back-filling so they sit flush with the soil surface. I want to be able to just run the mower over the tops of them and avoid bringing out the string trimmer to get the grass that comes up between them.

Pergola plans

I learned today I need to get a building permit before I start constructing my pergola.  No worries on that, my plans for the thing are rock solid.  But I have to submit a sketch with my application.

I tried to sketch it by hand, but I just can’t pull that off since the cancer.

So I decided to try it out in Google Sketchup.  Quite a simple program to use, but very cool for 3d modeling.  I’m impressed!

Pergola Sketch

Pergola Sketch

I sketched up this alternate design with more even spacing between the second tier beams. Hmmm, now there’s a dilemma. Which one do you prefer?

Spring To-Do List Heats Up

My list of projects for this spring is starting to get going.  In a few weeks, my area will be at its average date of last frost (March 15 or s0) so I need to have my vegetable garden ready for planting.  That means I need to have the area fenced to keep the rabbits out.  It’s nice and toasty this week (in the 60’s), so I think I’m going to get that fence installed.  A few wooden posts, steel t-posts to supplement, and rabbit fencing.  I plan on installing a pair of gates since it’s a big garden, too.  Once that is done, I can get to planting some woody species…I absolutely want some blackberries.  Maybe some raspberries, too.

Then there’s the looming larger project…the pergola.  I’m slowly but surely making progress on the preparation for that one.  I’m in the process of building 6×6 posts out of 2×4’s at the moment.  I have 6 out of 10 posts finished.  I need to buy more screws, but I’d like to have all 10 finished by the end of the weekend.  These things are monsters.  I think the pergola is going to look amazing when it’s done.  Ain’t no hurricane going to take it out, I’m telling you!  It’s going to be heavy, solid, and anchored to the ground.  I need to visit the courthouse (maybe I’ll do that tomorrow) to make sure I don’t need to file for a building permit of some sort.

Before I can commence building of the pergola, I need to install the gutter on the back of the house.  I hate that the house only has a tiny bit of gutter over the front porch, and nowhere else around the house.  I’m going to install gutter on the back of the house prior to building the pergola (mainly to prevent erosion of landscaping around the pergola), and possibly install gutter around the rest of the house later in the year.  If I get the garden fencing installed quickly enough, I’ll be installing the gutter this weekend, too.

Photos of all these projects, of course, will be forthcoming as I make more progress.

2010 Vegetables Cont’d

I finally planted the rest of my vegetables today. Due to budgetary issues, the wife didn’t want me buying more seed starting gear…I had to make due with what I had. I had some extra starter discs, but I didn’t have a tray to put them in. So I improvised. I’m not using the lid on my big tray anymore, because the plants are too tall. So that top became the bottom for my other veggies.

More seeds!

My earlier veggies are growing like crazy. Some sprouted within a couple days of being planted. Others only just started sprouting, like the eggplants. The banana peppers have not yet sprouted. I don’t know if they will, but I’m not terribly concerned. I don’t use them much, so it won’t be a huge loss. The sunflowers, beans, cucumbers, and zucchini are huge. I actually think they’re a bit leggy. I’m not sure the lights I’m using are so great. I can’t put them really close to the plants due to the heat…but I just don’t think they’re good enough. I’ll make do for now, but I think next year I’ll be using fluorescent tube grow lights.

So, here’s the grand total of veggies I’m planting. I’m also attempting to grow lemons and avocados from fruits I bought from the grocery store. We’ll see how that goes.

Vegetables 2010

And because I’m growing so much and couldn’t fit all the seed packets into one frame, here’s another of all the herbs I’m growing this year. Some have told me the stevia is hard to grow from seed…but mine are coming up great.

2010 Herbs

Yeah, yeah…I know that Ferry Morse seed you get from Lowes isn’t so hot. I bought all those seeds last year before I got sick (and knew any better). The stuff I got this year is the Baker Creek seed. Very happy with them, and the pink tomatoes were free, even. I had no idea to expect free seed.

I’ll be buried under tomatoes this year. Grape tomatoes, red tomatoes, green zebra tomatoes, and pink tomatoes. Oh well, it’ll at least be a colorful harvest.

The spinach and lettuce is an experiment. That stuff is considered cold-weather vegetables around here, and are typically grown in the fall season. I’m trying it now, and will see how long it goes until the heat kills it off. I’ll probably grow more for real in the fall.

I’m excited about a few things this year. For one, I’m growing enough to try my hand at making fresh red and green salsas…and quite a variety of them at that. I’m also excited about the white wonder watermelons. I’ve tried yellow watermelon, and it was tasty and a little different from the traditional red. The white could be cool. I’ve been told the green zebra tomatoes are excellent, too. Mmmm. The kiwano melon is a fun experiment. To see how it tastes and see if I can find anything to do with it (could it potentially be an ingredient in fruit salad?). The entire herb garden excites me. I got some fresh herb cuttings from the farmer’s market a year and a half ago and they were outstanding. WAY better than the “fresh” herbs you buy at the grocery store.

I also plan on buying some blackberries and raspberries once it’s time to plant in the spring.

I am just fed up with the terrible produce available from the grocery stores. Our farmer’s market here in Nacogdoches is an excellent resource, but there are relatively few vendors. I plan on continuing to go for things that I don’t grow myself…like fresh peaches. Fresh local peaches bring back memories of my great grandparents’ house in rural east Tennessee. They’ve been passed along for many years now, and I haven’t been able to get my fresh peach fix for over a decade until I moved here. Supermarket peaches are the absolute WORST of the grocery store produce. I can’t believe that some people think that peaches are SUPPOSED to be hard like tennis balls. That just insults my good sensibilities.

My cancer recovery is another incentive for me to get this garden going. I had plans to start it before I got leukemia. But now that I’ve been through all that, I absolutely want to get as much of my diet from my own garden. I REALLY want to keep it organic. I’ve been prepping the soil now for over a year. Last year I had a truckload of horse manure delivered. I mixed some into my garden last January, and let the rest sit until this year. I’ll be mixing the rest into the soil right before I plant. I have a brush pile going of stuff I’ve been clearing out of my backyard woods. Once I get that done, I will be mulching the pile, and I will probably wait until next winter to add it.

I also plan to start composting this year. I need to build myself some bins still so I can get it going. I just have too much going on to start that yet. I have to build the pergola over my back patio yet. And once I get that done, I need to work on an exclosure to keep my pets and the local wildlife out of my veggies.

The pergola will be the centerpiece of additional gardening efforts. The herb garden will be just outside the back door between the house and the pergola. The pergola itself will be a giant trellis for vining plants. Jasmine was recommended to me as one option. I like it, since the aromatic flowers will be outstanding and create a wonderful atmosphere. I think I might try passionflower, too, since the blooms are so ornate. I have considered attempting grapes, too, but we’ll see about that. I don’t know how many different species I can realistically support without making it look like a mess.

Eventually I’ll do up some plans in Google Sketch-up and post progress photos of everything. My wife did the front yard in 2009 with the help of her mother while they were taking care of me. 2010 will be the year of the backyard.

Vegetable and Herb Garden 2010

I tried to start a vegetable garden last year and I had all my seeds started…until I got leukemia. When that happened, the whole project halted. I had tilled the garden, fertilized with horse manure, and all that. But being in a coma for a month dampens the ability to work on such a project.

I’m trying again this year…with some improvements. Last year, I just put my seeds in an eastern window. That was grossly insufficient. They came up spindly and weak. This year, I built a growing rack to hang grow lights on. It’s allowing me to start more seeds, as well as give them a better start.

seed stand

I’m starting quite a lot. I’ve got two varieties of tomatoes, three peppers, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, carrots, watermelon, spinach, and a mesclun salad mix. In the big tray I’ve got two varieties of sunflower, parsley, sage, basil, oregano, chives, cilantro, peppermint, thyme, and rosemary. In some other pots/starters in the picture below I’ve got saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, an assortment of carnivorous plants, and some aloe vera.

Seed starting

I still need to order a few plants. I definitely need tomatillos, some melons, stevia, some green tomatoes, pumpkins, leeks, and strawberries. I’m ordering those today. They should be in by the end of the week. I know it sounds like a lot. Keep in mind that my herb garden plot is separate from my vegetable plot. And I have .8 acre, so I can afford a large vegetable garden.