Thursday, January 26, 2012

How to Construct a Poor Woman's Green Roof

If you live in a condo so it's worth the investment to install a real green-roof gardening system, go for it.  But if you're in an apartment, that changes the equation a bit.  I came up with this system to give my terrace the look and feel of a green-roof perimeter, but still keep the cost and hassle manageable.   I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but when I went back through all 3 posts I have added since I made this container garden, it wasn't among them.  It goes like this:

Shopping list includes potting soil, gravel, plants, and concrete mixing tubs. A drill with a large bit is helpful.  If you don't have a drill, you might be able to make holes with a biggass nail and a hammer, but these pans are pretty rugged for plastic.   The medium  tub  at Home Depot is a good size for this project, but use whatever size works for your space.

Medium Concrete Mixing Tub

Drill at least one hole into the end of the tub, about 1-2 inches up from the bottom.  I made 4 in mine, but that might be overkill.  This will allow excess water to drain, but also gives it a reservoir that will reduce the amount of watering you will have to do.

Pour about 1-2 inches of gravel into the bottom of the pan.  I used Home Depot's 40 pound bags of pea gravel.  One bag will be enough for 3 or 4 tubs.

Spread some of the potting soil over the gravel, and then arrange your plants in the tub.  Pack more soil around the plants and water generously.

These succulents are all hardy to -20 F degrees and need very infrequent watering. 
Because these pans are shallow, and because you are a seriously urban apartment dweller who has better things to do than water the garden daily, I highly recommend sticking to plants that have a very low water requirement.  Also, if you want them to grow back in the spring, they need to be very cold-tolerant, since it is a pretty good bet that the soil and roots will freeze solid at least a few times over the winter.   In general this will mean those of the variety known as succulents.  There is a huge variety of plants that will meet these criteria.   I went for having lots of variety, but I could also envision picking out just one and going for a monoculture.  (If you do that, look for one that says it will grow quickly so you don't have to haul home as many plants.)  I can get by with watering these "green-roof" plants once a week (if it doesn't rain), although I water the non-succulent plants every other day, and daily when the heat is really brutal.

More drought and cold tolerant succulents.
Here are some of the pictures I took while I was putting them together, plus a few that show how nicely the plants grew and filled out the containers.  About 85% of what I planted Year 1 came back even more robustly in Year 2, and I could fill in the holes by splitting and transplanting the ones that made the cut for "survival of the fittest".
Mixing pan, pea gravel,
soil, and plants. 
That spot on the leftish side
shows the position for one
 of the 4 drainage holes I
drilled with a 3/4" drill bit.

Spread 1-2 inches of gravel.
This allows for drainage from the soil
and creates a reservoir for water.

Spread some soil over the gravel, arrange the plants in the container and fill with more soil around the plants.  I started out with about 6 one-quart plants per container.

By the end of the summer all the containers were overflowing, and in the second year I could split them and transplant them into other containers.

One of my green-roof containers in between some other larger planters

Some succulents have a nice flower, but most are various
shades of yellow, green, or red foliage.

The one on the right has plants my cats like to nibble.  
Cat grass from PetSmart is in the back corner,

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This is what happens when I can't tile bathrooms or kitchens . . . .

It would be idiotic to lay tile in an apartment.  No matter how great it might look, the management would probably make me remove it when we moved out - if we ever move out.  So I just "laid" it on the top of the this two-sided fireplace area that was crying out for tile.  This is tile left over from my kitchen project last year.  Looks SO much better than flat white paint.

Must . . .  not . . .  get out . . .  mortar and grout . . .  tools. . . . 

Now THAT is a renovation project!

The view from the dining room window on the day
 the yellow crane assembled the  black one.
There is a new addition to the view from our apartment windows and terrace:  the crane for a nearby construction project has been set up.  It's for a 10-story building that will include underground parking, a church on 1-3, topped by 7 stories of apartments.  The new building will go up between the red brick community building and the steeple, which was preserved when the original structure was demolished, so this will be an interesting process.

The rainy day view from outside on the terrace.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Enjoying the fruits of my labors

It was such a beautiful evening, I had to go outside on the terrace, and then I was compelled to take some pictures.  So nice!
If the building weren't there, we would probably see the Washington  Monument.

Facing Westish, with Ballston in the background

facing Northeast, with National Cathedral on the horizon

looking at the terrace doors

our fountain, and the materials for my next project - a cat tree

It was fortunate that I was nutty and dragged these rocks from Michigan to Cincinnati to Blacksburg and now to Arlington.  Without them, I would have lost this crepe myrtle tree in one of several violent storms we have had this summer.  When the sun goes down, the entire terrace is bathed in light from these copper solar lights.  

Monday, June 14, 2010

The fence is MARVELOUS!

It has taken a while for this project to get to the top of the priority list for a variety of boring reasons - not least of which has been the STINKING HOT weather alternating with rain.  Also, my original plan had "legs" that were 36" and a trial run immediately demonstrated that it was waaaay too top-heavy and unstable, especially when the wind was blowing.  (by the way, the wind is almost always blowing on the 11th floor).

So last week I decided it was a priority and I got busy on it.  But first I had to find a way to cut iron (or are they steel?) rods to shorten the legs.  The way I originally designed it was with "off the rack"  rods of some metal that was rusty so I know it has a high iron content ( I am not sure what the intended use is for these) from Lowe's.  Fortuitously, I talked with a real estate agent who knew of an ironworks in Mannassas - about 17 miles outside of the metro DC area.  [Shout-out to Steve Wydler: thanks for the tip; I owe you one!]  So I drove out there and they were extremely helpful.  A guy promptly cut my 36" rods into 18" pieces.  

Got home ready to assemble, but then realized I now had to cut down all the copper tubing, too. That took another day or two because I couldn't find my cutting tool.  Broke down and bought a new one at Cherrydale Hardware and did that  (Tom helped - thank you, Tom).  

Finally, I was able to try assembling it and find out if my design was going to be functional:

1. Rod goes into premade base.

2. Copper tubing goes over rod and plastic tube in base.  

3. Figure out where the bases go, and figure out which end to start with since the fence panels need to link and make a 90ish degree turn.  (Had to start over after putting up the first 6 panels.)

4. Put one side of a fence panel onto the leg by threading it down inside the copper tube and onto the rod.  Then connect the other side to the adjacent panel.

It only took about 4 hours!  Slightly longer than expected.   Just one problem - I needed two more panels!!  At first I was freaking out because Lowe's website was showing that this was unavailable at any Lowe's on the planet.  But I finally talked to someone and we figured out that the website actually has the wrong item number (320832) where it should be 0320834.  Turns out they had 45 in stock!  So we made the trek to the Alexandria Lowe's on Saturday, and NOW it is complete.  I have to say, it looks fantastic and seems to be very stable.  And it helps enormously having these beautiful potted plants.     There are a few spots where we will use some black cable ties to make sure the panels stay together, but that is really just preventive, not a structural defect.
We finally let the cats outside over the weekend, and they loved it just as much as we did - maybe even more.  
p.s.: while we were at Lowe's, Tom decided he wants another tree, so we bought a big pot there.  We found a tree we liked, but they were quite surly about delivering a tree and managed to talk us out of buying it there. (Another local nursery (whose initials coincidentally are "MF") also responded with a big "HUH?" when I inquired about planning and installing a rooftop garden.)  So I will take that pot out to Cravens Nursery where they did the other plants for me.  They happily helped me plan the plants, potted and delivered them via the freight elevator and put them out on the terrace, which was a big deal and a lot of work.  Some people know how to do things, and some don't.

As soon as we let the cats go outside, they checked out everything and then rolled on the concrete pavers in the sun.  We have already enjoyed some pretty spectacular sunsets.  This picture was just before dusk when the light was not so harsh, but before the sky became really colorful.  The cats especially love to go outside after the sun sets and it cools off.  Most nights we have to go out and bring them inside at bedtime.  And one of the best things is that it doesn't look like it was designed for cat containment - it is very pleasant and relaxing for humans, too!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Keeping Cats From Falling 11 Stories, part 2

Today I cut 10-foot lengths of copper pipe into 32" pieces.
These will be the decorative part of the legs for the fence around the terrace.

The hardware guy pointed out the little tool for cutting the pipes and said it would be easy.  He wasn't kidding.   You just mark the length you want to cut, clamp this tool around the pipe, and then swivel it around and around.  After a few rotations, you tighten the clamp a bit more, and in a few minutes, the pipe is cut with a nice straight edge.

I needed a minimum of 21 pieces, but I cut about 5 extras, just in case I need them.

I also have a bunch of  remnants that are about  4 inches shorter.  I will figure out something to do with them after I assemble the fence.   I have a new hobby looming on the horizon making something out of copper pipes.  Besides fencing.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

How to Keep Cats from Falling 11 Stories

Our exciting new pad in the Big City has a huge terrace (30 x 19) that will be my escape hatch - a place to step outside and feel the unobstructed sunlight on my head.  I can't wait to grow my urban oasis, but there will be lots of challenges.  The first one being that there are no screens on the doors to the terrace (how high do bugs fly, anyway?) so if we open them up to enjoy the fresh air, our two cats will be outside in a flash.   When I arrive next week, I want to construct a barrier above the terrace wall so they won't go through or up and over.   The wall is only 42" high, so it won't even slow them down. They have been cooped up in there with my husband while I sell our house and complete the move, so I know they are frantic to get outside - just like I will be, if I don't make this happen.   And there are no do-overs, since we are 11 stories up.  It has to be right the first time.

Another consideration: we have a neighbor right next to us with the same size terrace, so we can't block their view, i.e., no rolls of bamboo or woven grass fencing.   And I don't want anything horrid out there, so that rules out of lot of options right off the bat - like chicken wire, chain link, etc.  Plus there is the whole problem of how to anchor it on a concrete surface up in the sky.   I had to come up with something novel.   I think I have done just that, although I won't know for sure until I try to assemble it next week.

I literally spent a couple hours wandering in Lowe's going from the fencing to the plumbing to the hardware sections, working on the solution to this.  The fencing I will use is this.  Small enough holes so they can't get through it, so it just needs to be secure and tall.  It is 44", and will overlap with the wall by about 6", so I will have an unclimbable (New Word Alert) barrier approaching 7'.  Sharkey is a good jumper, but he can't clear 7'.

Now for the secure part: I have come up with an idea for legs that will substitute for stakes that need to be pushed into the ground.  I will take some pictures of those next week when it is all set up.

What I want to show right now is how I made the anchoring base for the legs.  I got all the $1 rectangular flower boxes I could find at local dollar stores (thanks for driving all around town with me, Dad), and five 50-pound bags of quick-setting concrete.  I cut up some rigid plastic tubing from the plumbing department, and used silicone caulk to stand the tubing in the flower boxes.  They leaned a bit sometimes, so I braced them up straighter with some gravel for the first few, but soon found it didn't matter.

 I mixed up 10 pounds of the concrete with water and put it into each flower box.  While putting the concrete into the box, I  put a finger over the holes in the tubes to make sure concrete didn't get in there, and that they stayed where I wanted them to stay.  I could straighten them up if they were still leaning.  In some of the boxes I used only one tube, but in others I put two.  More about that later.  Quickcrete concrete mix sets up quickly, so it is best to mix up small batches that you can comfortably stir, carry and pour.  And be sure you put the water in your mixing container first, then add the concrete powder.  I used two old plastic cups that held about probably close to 8 ounces, one for water and one for the dry concrete mix.

Here is my recipe for about 10 pounds of mix (not including water and tile weight):

Put 2 and 3/4 cups of water in a bucket.
Add 3 cups of concrete mix and stir it with a gardening hand-trowel.  The mix is powder and gravel, and will be very easy to stir at this point.
Add 3 more cups of concrete mix and stir it up just until there are no dry spots.
Add 3 more cups of concrete mix. Now it will be a bit more difficult to stir, but get everything in the bucket thoroughly wet.
Then add 1 last cup of concrete mix and stir it in completely.  Scrape that gardening trowel on the edge of the bucket to remove the concrete.  Then, drop into a second bucket full of water.
Now use a rectangular trowel, which you can find in the tile tools section.   Scrape the sides and bottom of the bucket and give it a final stir.
You have about 5-10 minutes to get it into your mold or container before it starts to set up.  Tamp it down with the trowel.  Then immediately fill your mixing bucket with water, and drop the rectangular trowel into that water.
Top the concrete with some tiles, pressing them into the concrete but not so much that they "sink".
Now go back and rinse out the mixing bucket and both of the trowels, and you are ready to mix up the next batch.

After about 10 minutes or so (just about when you get the next one poured), go back and verify that the tube is standing as perpendicular as you can get it.  I threade a long rod down into the hole and "eyeballed' whether it appeared to be straight.  You can adjust it a bit and jiggle the container to get the concrete to settle around it in its new position.

I love the way the tiles gave them a 'finished' look.  I especially love the ones with these green/blue and white river rocks.  What is it about rocks?  I just love them.

I got these as samples and intended to use them for the floor of a shower, but that was one of the projects I never got to do.  So I am glad to have these portable works of "art" to take with me!

                 Here's the line-up about halfway through the process.

 I made 21 of the rectangles, and 4 round ones.  All souvenirs of some of my favorite tiles.
I feel good about being able to mix and pour 250 pounds of concrete in an afternoon.  Definitely a cardio AND strength-training session.  I will admit that my hands ached the next day.  But they are done, they look pretty, and will be a critical piece of the puzzle that will allow me to rapidly assemble either 1.) an Outstanding Fence, or 2.) and Unmitigated Disaster.  My dad suggested adding chain and selling them as rowboat anchors if the fencing thing doesn't work.