Maintenance Information

If you are searching for particular maintenance information, please see the blogs for the months that correspond to the time frame that you are searching. Also check the labels of the blogs (at the base of the blog page) for blog subjects that might be helpful.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Fire Features and Outdoor Heating

One of the most popular trends at the moment is the installation of a fire pit. The notion of gathering around a warm, glowing fire is very appealing for evening entertaining.
This can be accomplished with several different options. The first consideration is fuel type: wood burning, natural gas or propane. Running a natural gas line can be expensive and hard to run if your paving is already installed. However, if you are just re-doing your landscape area and the ground is
clear of obstructions then running the gas line is a great way to go. Gas is clean burning and
easy to use plus relatively low cost to run. Wood burning is lovely but affects the air quality and it
is somewhat of a hassle to obtain wood or gather it. Any wood burning fire pit should have a spark
arresting screen.
Propane is a low cost option and the portable tanks last fairly well. Most prefab. fire pits use
propane, but may have an option to hook up to a gas line also. Occasionally, you will find a unit that uses butane. These are not always a good option as butane isn't as readily available, the tanks are small, and empty quickly.

Normally, fire pits are lined with fire proof stone, block or brick and have a raised edge so kids and
adults don't fall into the area. The low wall or edge around the unit acts as a foot rest, seat or
place to set food and drinks. (see examples to follow).
The exterior of the wall can be stone, block (stuccoed or veneered with stone), brick or
even wood, as the inside has the fire proof brick.  The Cap of the wall should be also fireproof-
stone, brick, cast concrete or interlocking pavers.
I like to set the height of the fire pit at 14-16" off patio level to be below seat height, so that you can see the fire and rest feet on edge.

The fire table is another interesting concept for a fire feature. These are normally at dining table
height and have a center burner powered by a propane tank below (in a housing). These units don't give off much heat but are a fun dining experience.
Both the fire pit and the fire table have the option of a cover for the fire area so the table and pit
can act as a regular piece of furniture.

Fireplaces built outdoors are lovely and make a backdrop for the garden. This is a very pricey option and not as easy to gather around for more than a few people.
They are custom built but there are some prefab. units available (they can be set on built in hearths) that lower the cost. These run on natural gas or propane and have a "faux" chimney- they vent out the side
or back. I have included photos to follow.

There are some fabulous combinations for fire and water features that I have included too.
These are really pretty by swimming pools and patio areas. The fire features and water features
are normally self contained so one can be set inside the other! Cool! These run on natural gas or propane and the water feature is electric. Plumbing is in a separate housing.

The other option for outdoor heating are portable or mounted heaters. Many restaurants have these and homes have the option also. Most of the stand heaters can be moved and have a space for the propane tank, while the bar shaped mounted heaters can be electric, natural gas or less commonly- propane.

The concept of heating the outside world is fairly flawed as the heat dissipates quickly.
Seating should be close- with in 2-3' of the unit and you should be prepared for uneven distribution of heat.
The ambiance is more the point of fire features and entertainment value.
 Heaters tend to heat the head and shoulders well while leaving the legs and ankles open to drafts. A lap rug or blanket might be just the thing for the lower body!

Fire features and heaters should be used with caution and need to follow all city rules and regulations.
Gas and Electrical lines should be installed by licensed professionals. And custom units need skilled
craftsman also. Enjoy safely and stay warm!

Prefabricated Fireplace with custom veneer and hearth or seat. Also a prefab. and hearth set in place.
Prefabricated Fireplace- notice the fire jewels inside the fire area. Very pretty

Custom double sided fireplace. Gorgeous, but according to home owner, not a very good
source of heat.

 This is a prefabricated fire bowl. Nice shape and look but edge is narrow for setting things on.
Below is a prefabricated fire pit with propane tank hidden in base. Available through American
Leisure Patio.
Custom built fire pit and seat wall. Tile cap and face band with stuccoed block base
 Custom built in fire pit with stone cap. Nice height and look.
 Examples of fire tables. Propane tank is hidden in base.
 Now here is an interesting unit for the rustic garden! Fun that is space conservative and unusual.

 Beautiful Bougainvillea draped over a custom built fireplace with southwest look.
Stuccoed block with cast concrete seat cap.
 Electric bar heaters mounted in patio cover and arbor

 Movable propane outdoor space heaters

Examples of fire features combined with water features

See also my patio furniture blog for other examples

Monday, April 13, 2020

Tomben Twerls

In 2013 I started to develop a cartoon character just for fun. I got busy with work for many years and stuck him in a file. With the need to shelter in place it gave me a lot of time to catch up on work and home repair plus take up some of my creative projects again. I used to have lots of hobbies but modern life seems to schedule out any free time so hobbies fell by the wayside.

On Easter Sunday 2020 I launched a facebook page for my cartoon "Tomben Twerls" (page is under this name and is for public view).  I wanted to invite my blog readers to join the page if desired and enjoy the adventures of Tomben.
He is a wood sprite and is 5" tall. He lives in the woodland near residential areas and interacts with insects, wildlife and the occasional domesticated pet.

I have posted some of the first entries from the facebook page and will add some more to the blog occasionally.
This seems like a super time to have some creative fun, revisit lost ideas and share a laugh with friends, family and the community.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Shading Patio Areas

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area means lots of sun almost year round. Some patios are even hot and sunny in the winter here! Depends on the orientation, house walls blocking wind or adjacent structures reflecting heat, but its pretty common. So its handy to have a ready area of shade for most patios unless overhanging trees give good shade.
 We have even installed patio covers because of trees! The dropage of a live oak or silk tree is no joke. They can drop quite a bit just in one day.

Photos to follow

There are some various solutions to adding shade to patios. The most common and movable is an umbrella. A prefabricated item that is movable and of varied cost. Umbrellas normally need a base-
also movable and should be sized to the diameter of the umbrella. The downfall of the umbrella is the
small area of shade and the center pole. Manufacturers have worked on this quite a bit and now they have something called a cantilevered umbrella. I call them hanging umbrellas because when they are
down they hang off the overhead arm of this type of umbrella (see photo). These types of umbrellas can be large- 10-13' and don't have a center pole but instead have an overhead arm, as I mentioned,
that the canopy hangs from. They have a very large base so we often put a sleeve in the patio/an ground tube to inset the pole and avoid the base.
Best to put you umbrella down in winds and store inside or in shed for the winter.
Most can be tilted to help with afternoon setting sun. Many have lights in them which is a great
feature. The canopies of best quality Umbrellas are made from Sunbrella fabric. Big box stores carry umbrellas of many types. You can get a good quality type from Frontgate, Patio World, American Leisure Patio or similar high end dealers.

Another popular item for patio shade has been the shade sail. This is a triangle of Sunbrella fabric
mounted to the home or posts and tensioned to not sag. These have a nice contemporary look and
can be taken down in winter. They are available from awning companies and online. They can overlap and most are custom made so if you want to play with the shape that is possible.
I think it is best to run a vinyl coated cable to eye bolts in wall or post and put a tensioner on the
cable. hang the sail from the eye bolts too and use cables to give extra points of clipping sail edges.
This also allows you to string lights on the cables as desired.
These can be quite large and with multiples you can cover a lot of area. They are also a good temporary solution until trees fill in for shade, or as noted above to protect patio from tree droppings.

The next option for shade is a retractable awning. These are mounted above the doors and windows
on the house walls or on top of the eave on the roof. The biggest advantages that I can see of an awning is the absence of posts. Arbors have posts that can impede layout of furniture on a patio
so not having posts is helpful. I also like the ability to roll out the awning a few feet or all the way.
This allows light into the rooms. Awnings now have bending arms much like our elbows. The awnings can go out to 12-14'. The distributor can provide the width on the house wall as needed for
coverage. Some folks don't like the look of them so you need to decide for yourself. The awnings
should be retracted in wind and winter. The have a housing on the wall for winter. They are available as electric or manual. Save yourself some money and get the manual so you don't need to replace the

In my business we build a lot of Arbors- also know as trellis', pergolas, or patio covers.
They are normally custom built on site from wood but not always. Some are prefabricated kits and
vinyl and metal are also available for awnings. A traditional Arbor is a slatted wood roof that lets
air circulate. They can be natural wood i.e. Cedar or Redwood  sealed or painted to protect the wood.
Do not leave as raw wood due to the UV and weather deterioration- Arbors become unsightly and wear out quickly if left untreated.
Pressure treated wood should not be used as it doesn't accept seal or paint, and is also not good
quality or good looking. Folks have become very fond of having solid roofs outside so sometimes
we will use flat plastic sheeting on top (from Tap Plastics). These sheets aren't really visible and do
not yellow. They are translucent. The arbor should have a slight pitch for drainage. There are still some fiberglass wavy patio cover panels around or the aluminium version but that's pretty dated.
Prefabricated kits can be good if the materials are sturdy and good quality. Keep in mind all arbors should have anchors drilled into the patio or set with a pier when the patio is built. An arbor can be tipped by strong winds, people hanging things on them or other action.
There are codes and conditions set on placement of arbors in yards by the city and usually require a permit so be fore warned.

labels and notes below photos

 Arbor kit with sliding awning cloth shades
 Typical Redwood Arbor stain-sealed in a dark walnut color
 Small Arbor will have a vine growing over it for shade
 Cool Umbrella with flat side to set against a wall
 Typical Umbrella in a table- pretty small for that table!
 Shade Sails supported to steel posts. These give afternoon shade to this area
 Nice example of alternate shapes for these Shade Sails
 Quite a few commercial properties use these. Good example of mounting to building and posts.
 Retractable Awning with good coverage

 This photo shows the support arms of the retractable awning

 This is known as an "eyebrow" awning or window shade. Helpful for those hot windows!\
 Solid Roofed Patio cover (sometimes called a gazebo)- Costco has a similar one too
 Wavy fiberglass panels keep out rain but are kind of a dated look. Nice Arbor

 Some homes have a lot of trouble with the setting sun in the home and patio. This look like its on
a manufactured home but is one solution. We use outdoor drop blinds on Arbors to do the same thing.

Example of a vinyl arbor. This one may have opening and shutting louvers as the roof.
An Australian Company markets their louvered arbors in the U.S. and they are at a lot of
home shows- theirs have metal louvers.

Hope these notes on shade structures are of some help. Its one of those items that makes the patio
easier to use in Summer and helps us avoid the direct sun and protect our skin and eyes.
On my projects there is usually multiple solutions we can use and we narrow it down by look, cost, maintenance and space.

One last photo of a cantilevered umbrella- this one is 13'. They come with the valence on the edge or without. The Umbrella pictures were taken at American Leisure Patio in San Jose (they have multiple locations).

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Plants for Shaded Areas

Deep shade is always a challenge for finding and maintaining plants that will survive in low light.
Plants need light to photosynthesize so they can't do very dark places at all but can pick up
enough filtered or reflected light even in deep shade if they are adapted to that type of environment.
Even some plants that started out in sunny locations and then are shaded over time by buildings or
trees may survive. I see quite a few gardens like this, where the light changes over the years but some of the original shrubs remain.

There are a couple of factors, besides light, that can affect the plants- struggling to get water and nutrients where tree roots dominate the soil areas, dry shade where eaves of overhanging buildings
block rain, falling leaves burying the plants, and some times toxic excretions from trees like Privets, Eucalyptus or Walnut that keep plants from growing around them.

Extra fertilizing and root pruning of the trees can help, Thinning the canopies of the trees (but not topping or severely cutting them), installing irrigation to supplement rain, and avoiding trees with growth inhibitors or using alternates under them like mulch or pea gravel. Plants in large pots set into the garden work well but should have regular watering- pots dry out easily.

I am including some photos of plants that have been helpful in areas of deep shade. These are picked for the area of my business in Santa Clara and San Mateo County in California so check zones for your area if you live in another county or state.
Names are below the photos.

 Aucuba longifoilia 'salicifolia'- willow leaf leaf Aucuba. 3-6' evergreen shrubs
This hybrid isn't very common.
Snails will eat the leaves so use Sluggo, pet safe bait, or a copper tape at base.
 Aucuba 'Variegata'- gold dust plant. Not my favorite variegation but can add light to a shaded area.
There are lots of hybrids of varied size, leaf type and variegation. 4-6' high
 Aspidistra elatior- cast iron plant.  Used a lot indoors or in atriums. Great in pots under trees or inground. Perennial 2' high
 Clivia miniata- kaffir lily. The orange is the most available. This plant wants no direct sun.
Perennial 18"-24" high. A great potted plant. Bait for snails with Sluggo.

 Orange Clivia
 Coleus hybrids. Great in pots or in ground in rich soil for summer and fall color
They are annuals so need to be planted each year in early summer. Lovely though and I miss them when we don't have them. I have had luck taking cuttings and rooting them in glasses of water over the winter. This year I brought a potted one into the kitchen- it will go back on the deck as it
warms up. Heights vary and there are many leaf color options. They do bloom with a stalk with
small blue-purple flowers but it is the foliage that is eye catching.
 Begonia- tuberous type. Best in pots for summer color. Save the tubers and they can be replanted the next year or set the pots in a place where they don't get too soggy in winter and they will grow back
as it warms up. Gorgeous  colors on these and big leaves so kind of a tropical look. 12-18" high
 Pellaea rotundifolia- button fern. Despite their reputation ferns don't always do well in deep shade.
I am showing the easiest and toughest of the bunch. Button fern is 8-12" high
Ferns are perennials.
 Nephrolepis cordifolia- Southern Sword Fern. Easy and spreads a bit. Cut off dead fronds at base
to keep them looking good. They can be divided if they get too crowded. 18-24" high
 Asparagus Fern- there are several types and are super easy. Be careful, they have interior small thorns. 12-24" high
 Campanula murialis- serbian bellflower A great ground cover and the best woodland ground cover that I have found. These are perennial and its good to trim the flowers after bloom.
 Camellia japonica. Large shrubs from 3'-15' or more. Absolutely hardy once established. Will bloom better with some light but survive well in deep shade too. Clean up flowers as they drop to avoid petal blight or flowers getting brown spots on. They bloom in early spring or late winter.
Usually red, pink or white colors and there are lots of flower shapes and looks.
 A smaller Camellia- this is a Camellia sasanqua and blooms in fall. The plants are
1'-6' depending on hybrid. These are available as espalier too (grown flat on a trellis).
The flower are delicate and smaller than the Camellia japonica.
Fatsia japonica -false aralia. Shown in the sun but grows in deep shade too.
They get about 4-7' tall and are very resilient.
 Osmanthus 'goshiki'- holly leaf Osmanthus. The new growth is pink! I didn't think I would like this plant but have grown to love its unique quality in the garden. It grows very slowly so doesn't overwhelm the borders. It gets 3'-6'. It doesn't seem to bloom but that is not unusual in shaded areas
 Osmanthus fragrans. Gorgeous big shrub with fragrant flowers and deep green leaves. They are great screening shrubs and grow 6-10'. They are evergreen shrubs. You may have heard of Osmanthus tea.
Not sure this is the species for tea but its fun to relate the drink to the Genus.
 This is also Osmanthus fragrans- just showing the size for you. Again this shows it in sun but
these plants prefer sheltering.
 These photos are all of Sarcococca humilis hookeriana. A lovely ground covering
shrub for shaded areas. This is an evergreen shrub 12-24" tall usually. I have seen it taller where it was crowded with other plants or buildings.

 Lovely leathery foliage. There is also Sarcococca ruscilfolia which is a 3-4' version of this plant
 Their tiny flowers have a great spicy fragrance. Hard to see though.

These are a few good choices that I have tried and tested over the years. Check Sunset Western Garden Book for watering and soil requirements. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list just some helpful suggestions for hard areas to find plants for.
When planting under trees its super important to dig large holes, trimming back tree roots with a sharp tool and filling holes with clean topsoil and compost. Keep up with fertilizing to help the plants compete with the trees.
If using pots- use large ones as they don't dry out as easily and have more room for roots.
Pots 24"-30" high and wide are great. I like Miracle Gro potting soil or moisture retention potting soil.  These products have fertilizer for one year built into the mix. Drainage is important so make sure pots have one to 3 holes in the bottom.
Below the eaves along north facing house walls the soil can be terrible. Ammend extensively or replace the soil that comes out of the planting holes with clean topsoil and compost. Make sure the plants get watered in winter as the eaves can keep the areas dry.
Mulch plantings with shredded bark and pull the mulch away from the plant crowns to avoid crown rot. 2" of mulch is good. This will also give the area a more finished look. The mulch breaks down over time and adds to the soil ammendment.
Ask gardeners not to blow off the mulch and not to blow in planted areas more than once or twice a year. Those blowers wreck the low plantings and soil structure. They harm native bees also.

Have fun working in the shade as the weather warms up. Its a great retreat!

one last photo- Brunnera 'jack frost'. 18" tall and can spread by self seeding. These
like moist soil that is rich in organic matter so aren't for every garden but wanted to
include photo as a parting pic.