Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Evil Empire - Leaf Cutter Ants

We’ve planted three citrus trees and one peach tree adapted to the climate we face (hot, South Texas weather).  Despite the lateness of the planting, we’ve managed to nurse them along well and they were doing quite well.  However as can be seen from this picture, in one night multiple trees can be stripped.  This picture has only one stripped tree (the peach tree) and one citrus they hadn't yet stripped. Three trees were entirely stripped of leaves. 

The culprit – as pest called leaf cutter ants “also known as “the town ant, cut ant, parasol ant, fungus ant and night ant. Atta texana can be extremely destructive to landscape plants, gardens and some agricultural crops in Texas.” (Source, Insects in the City, Texas A&M GriLife Extension. The link for the article is as follows: http://citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/landscape/ants/ent-1002/.  A picture of the nasty pest is here:

We’re put every ant bait we had in our inventory.  The problem though is that these pests really eat only the fungus produced from the leaves they strip and carry to their rather large nests, making them resistant to normal sugar-based or oil-based ant baits.  Nonetheless, the ants didn’t return last night and the remaining tree is still OK.  During the summer months, these pests do their damage in the dark.  It’s only the following morning that you know if you’ve been attacked again.  With future gardens and other growing projects coming up soon, we want to do whatever we can to convince these pests to go away (from what I’ve read, you only control the pests – you don’t really remove them).  I’m headed for Wal-Mart as the Ampro brand and bait was recommended in the attached article.

If any of you have experience with this nasty pest and have ideas or solutions, let’s share them as comments to this blog and see what we can do to help protect gardens from this difficult pest. The above photo is credit Seth Patterson and was copied from the Texas A&M article referenced above..

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Gardens and Decorations

We've had a little time to get settled and given the lateness of the season, figured we needed to get a garden going as soon as possible.  We didn't have time to build the more permanent raised beds we contemplate for the future, but do have large decorative planters around the wrap around porch and while we intend those to have ornamental plants, flowers and herbs, will use them this year for a quick vegetable garden.  Here's a couple of shots of the garden now that it's producing:

Despite the fact that there are a lot of things wrong with the garden (planted too late, on the north side of the house and shaded much of the day), we've actually gotten quite a bit of yield from the garden and will enjoy it until we can plant a more permanent Fall garden in late September.  We also have a few fruit trees you can see in the pictures - three citrus and one peach - again planted at a time when they shouldn't have done so well, but with lots of care and lots of daily watering, they seem to be prospering and we hope will thrive next year.

We've also now had time to decorate more inside with things like collector plates (something we've done around the world) and and local Texas items like a set of long horns.  The big beam in the living room/dining room area makes a wonderful place to put these things so here's a few views of that:

And we've started doing some craft and building projects with grandkids.  Here's some bottle trees we've built lately:

Five grandchildren and a few other family members contributed to these works of art.

The most ambitious construction project we've undertaken since we've essentially finished the house and are limiting outside hours after 2 PM due to the heat is a pair of very large (each can seat 16-20 people) picnic tables for the large outdoor patio among the oaks.  Taylor Christie (oldest granddaughter) assisted significantly on the projects and we worked on these every day for about two weeks, using them for the first time for her farewell BBQ dinner.  Here's some shots:

Under the heading of "build it and they will come" we look forward to the time when we have enough company for a BBQ to fill the tables.

Finishing the House - Completing the Move In

On April 24th, over ten weeks since I left Australia, Julie arrived.  The house is very livable but I've had very little chance to move in much furniture or household goods.  I figured rather than doing much of that (the bedroom furniture and office furniture are in place), I'd get Julie's help as she's the primary decision maker on where things go in the house.  Just before she got here though, we finished one additional project that was high on her list - some nice, functional shutters on the outside windows.  In keeping with the French Country in Texas (what she calls French Tex), the shutters when painted the nice blue that we've used as the accent color so far.  Here's a couple of picture of the shutters - one when they first went up and the other after they've been painted:

One of the first things we did after the household goods arrived was to take the hot tub we had in Australia, wire it up, fill it and start using it.  Here's a couple pictures of some happy grandkids and us enjoying the hot tub out on the porch:
Mostly though, the combination of the household goods coupled with Julie's good eye for placement of art and other decorations are making a huge difference to the house:

 And as mentioned earlier, one of the projects we outsourced was the master closet (actually Julie's closet where she lets me hang a few things).  Here's a few view of the finished project:

Altogether, we're pretty happy with the results of the project.  It's now about 12 weeks after the beginning of the intense effort to finish the house.  We will now enjoy the house, settle in a bit and start working on the outside areas.  We need to quickly get a (very late) vegetable garden into the outside planters, get some fun projects going and let Julie settle into her new role within her company.  She has a challenging role, but one that will allow her to often work from the home office (when not out on the road).  We'll both enjoy that and we're now enjoying the home while recognizing that we still have much to do and also know that those projects will probably take the next two years (at a slower pace than before).  It's too hot here in the Texas summer to start things like bees and chickens.  We'll hopefully get chickens going in the Fall and bees next Spring.  In the meantime, we'll get the more permanent garden beds going for the Fall planting and enjoy what produce we get from our initial garden.

Finishing The House - Time to Move In!

By now, I've put in about 75 straight long days - generally getting up around 6, getting some breakfast and then getting started.  Sometimes, I'm done around 6 PM but often with long painting days, there have been more than a few nights that have stretched to 10 PM or later.

About the tenth of April (less than two weeks behind the initial aggressive goal), I started using the house full time.  The bedroom was in nice shape:

It was really nice to have use of the full sized bathroom after two months in the cramped quarters of the camper.  Also the kitchen was beginning to look like a kitchen:

Note that the counter tops are finished plywood for now.  Very functional and we'll be able to use them for months until we can get the granite counter tops we want.  We decided during the early phases of the build that we would take the money budgeted for kitchen counter tops and spend it instead on a really good master closet.  We had designed a very large space for the closet but didn't have a good plan for the build out.  We wound up going to California Closets (we talked to 3 different companies before selecting them) and they will build out the closets in a week or so (took about six weeks lead time) - just in time for Julie to arrive and for the household goods in storage.

In the meantime, the pantry is done, the laundry room cabinets are in and functional and the guest bath is coming along nicely.  Here's the evidence of those activities:

Most importantly Julie's office and our guest bedroom is in very nice shape so with a functional kitchen, decent master bedroom, working laundry room and a very usable office, I'm ready for some company (other than the cats).  I'll spend all the time between now and Julie's arrival doing continued finishing work, constant painting (it seems) and start moving in a few things.
I'm guessing we'll wind up rearranging the office furniture once Julie gets here, but it's fully ready with internet, printer, desk, cabinets and filing cabinets.

Finishing the House - Making Progress on Multiple Fronts

The first few weeks of the project of finishing the house seemed to be an exercise in "2 steps forward, 3 back".  There were many false starts, problems with schedules and workers.  We were blessed though with good weather and after a few weeks, we had hit on a group of people who were very dependable and eager to do a good job.  This group enabled us to do multiple tasks at the same time, some inside and some outside.  With the walls finally in good shape, we spent most of our time doing the flooring and fixing up various things outside with a Bobcat as well as getting the water supply in better shape.

While maybe it would seem minor except when you're living in a camping trailer and relying on family and friends to help out with laundry, a major event occurred when the tile layers finished the laundry room and I was able to move in the washer and dryer I had found locally via Craig's List.  To be able to do my own laundry and any time I wanted seemed like a major luxury.
As another major milestone, the cabinets we had specified were delivered by the cabinets for the kitchen and laundry room.  Now we have our work cut out for us as the entire "big room" is full of cabinets that need to be hung, painted and finished.
We're now around the end of March - the initial self-imposed milestone I had when I came to Texas.  I wanted to have the house livable by now and, honestly, we're pretty close to being able to move in.  However, the furniture is arriving very soon and I need to take time to move the camper from the garage up to its permanent home.  This means getting a large trench dug for the electricity and wiring - about 200' of trench - and then connecting everything.  This will take 2-3 days out of the schedule.  I do have a pretty good crew doing a lot of the trim work and they've done some good work on the vaulted ceiling and wainscoting so that we can hang the cabinets.  Also, they're busy building a large pantry off the kitchen so that we'll have a place to store all of the canned food products we'll be developing in our gardens the next few years.

On the subject of gardens, because we've been so busy from February through probably late April or early May just getting the house livable, I've had no time to put in the gardens, even though I have quite a bit of treated material for raised beds.  Probably after Julie gets here, we'll take some time to use the existing large planters around the large porch to plant (very late for South Texas) our tomatoes, peppers, squash and other vegetables we will have for the first summer.

Now - with the camper trailer on its new and permanent home:
And with the garage now full of household goods instead of the camper trailer:
I'm ready to get back to the trim work, painting and other finishing work that will enable me to start moving furniture and household goods into the house and finally move out of the trailer after two months.  The trailer has provided me an excellent home - complete with kitchen, very good bed and bathroom, but sharing it with two cats plus the confined quarters is getting a bit old, so I'm eager and motivated to get the house usable and I probably have about three weeks before Julie arrives, so I'd better get busy,