Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Please note that there is a credible but incomplete report of a person who went missing from our area, as reported via our neighborhood email blast about three hours ago.  Excerpt as follows:

Scott [last name not given] left for work Monday morning and never made it there. Everyone who knows him knows that THIS IS NOT TYPICAL OF HIM. We know that he stopped at the Walmart gas station on FM 518 and Hwy 146 around 8:30 am. His usual route is to travel 146 to 225, then north on 610 exiting Market Street. The police have taken our info but can do no more than post his vehicle info locally. ... look out for a red single cab longbed Dodge Ram - Lic. 84 BLT 6  (EASY to remember BLT bacon/lettuce/tomato)

Sunday, April 22, 2012


My husband loves, loves, loves to play with technology.  So as I was researching when Centerpointe (the subdivision, not the utility company) really did come into existence, he took some old aerial photos and put together the very short morph film embedded at the end of this post. 

It turns out that what I said in the easement post wasn't exactly accurate.  Our deed restrictions may be dated 2001, but from historical photography, it appears that the actual bulldozing of this place began some time in the year 2000. 

The fact that I chose Earth Day to post this is a coincidence, but at the same time, it's worth making a few associative observations.  Yesterday, SciGuy posted a piece titled "Humans have changed the planet.  How much?  See inside."  In it, he presented "before and after" style aerial photos that were published by NASA (unfortunately, no animations like Centerpointethemovie).
NASA's site banner for the above URL.
Humans have, indeed, changes the planet enormously.  That's what happens when billions of people are added to the population.  People need places to live.  American people need new subdivisions like Centerpointe. 

I think I mentioned back in 2011 that the finest environmental-type documentary I've seen in my entire life is "The Unforeseen". 
"The Unforeseen" uses, as its haunting motif, an animation showing subdivision streets snaking across and consuming previously-undeveloped land, which is the same thing you'll see in Centerpointethemovie below.
Most documentaries that deal with the environment are simple propaganda pieces - they advocate one side of an argument or the other.  "The Unforeseen" is quite different - it presents the debate in a way that humanizes and validates every single point of view.  You feel the plight (yes, plight) of the land developer.  You feel the the tragedy of natural resource degradation and the resulting bone-deep despair of the environmentalists (it's a particularly forceful kick in the gut when they show the "before and after" footage of Barton Springs).  Simultaneously, there's a deeply-felt resonant agreement (or there should be!) when property owners present their view that they should be able to do exactly what they want with their own private property (and if this right were not upheld, none of us here in Centerpointe would have our houses right now).  And the young parents who are interviewed shortly after buying their house in a brand-new subdivision... how can you not feel for them?  They need some kind of a home to raise their children. 

In sum, this is a documentary that will leave you reeling no matter which side of the argument you find yourself on.  There are no easy answers to the balancing of environmental preservation and land development, and "The Unforeseen" makes that clear, in spades.  Centerpointethe movie is only 23 seconds long, so after you get done watching it, you might want to check out "The Unforeseen" trailer here

Happy Earth Day.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What's in an easement name?!

According to our deed restrictions, the legal entity of Centerpointe was formed in March of 2001.  The legal entity of CenterPoint was spun off from Reliant Energy in October of 2002.  It's a most unfortunate name coincidence that will no doubt continue to trigger regular bouts of confusion, but for the record, we were here first. 


There was a notice in the most recent neighborhood newsletter concerning a new gas pipeline that's supposed to be installed in the Center-something easement.  The notice encouraged residents to attend the public meeting which will be held at the Civic Center (400 West Walker) from 6 to 8 pm this coming Tuesday April 24. 

This prompted me to contact the outreach contractor to try to get a better idea of what exactly is being proposed here. 

According to my phone chat and emails with them, the thing is to be laid in the CenterPoint easement, NOT the Centerpointe easement.  Let me try to explain.

We do, in fact, have a curiously-large utility easement that partially runs behind Walnut Pointe and is then sandwiched between Arlington Pointe and Boxelder Pointe.  It consists of three linear tracts of land whose owner of record is our homeower's assocation, as follows:
Exhibit A, near Calder and Centerpointe Drive.
Exhibit B, in back of Walnut Pointe (primarily).
Exhibit C, between Boxelder and Arlington.
This is what I generally refer to in common speech as "the Centerpointe easement".  It's the only large conspicuous easement that really intrudes into the subdivision. 

OK, so there's that.  But there is also a major easement to the east of us, which in vernacular speech, I've sometimes heard referred to as "the CenterPoint easement".  That's the thing east of the stormwater ponds with all those high-lines. 
This thing.  During last year's drought, this was one of the line sets that they had to clean the salt from using high-pressure water sprays from this helicopter.
If I'm understanding things correctly, this easement actually goes by a number of names:
Good grief.
The public notice announcement referred to it as the "Inner-urban" easement, but I believe it's supposed to be the Interurban easement, which is how City documents such as this one below appear to name it:
From http://www.leaguecity.com/DocumentView.aspx?DID=3894
The name probably comes from the street that it parallels...
Sorry about the crummy res.
Blame Googlemaps.
...and the street, in turn, may have been named after the original railroad, which Chris John Mallios explains in this GCDN piece.

But I digress.  As I said, Mr. Randy Perry with Emerald Coast Energy Resources LLC (music alert on the URL) confirmed that this new gas pipeline will not be laid in OUR easement.  Given the ambiguity surrounding the naming of these things, I might show up at the public meeting anyway, just to confirm and get more information, but there's that much, at least.

The whole thing raises another series of questions, though.  Why does such a wide easement run through Centerpointe anyway? 

I can take a guess at one reason right off the bat...
Centerpointe's sewage lift station is located at the northeast corner of the easement.  That's that mysterious thing behind the wooden privacy fence near the large tree and near the section of wrought iron fence at the Boxelder cul-de-sac.
This thing. 
(Why does the Googlemobile take so many pics straight into the sun?!)
So they needed to run sewer and presumably water lines back there.  I'm no engineer, but is it really necessary to have a FIFTY FOOT easement just for water and sewer lines?  Why is that thing so wide when much the land could have instead been used to make more generous back yards?  (If you're a Centerpointe old-timer, you might recall that one of the Boxelder homeowners actually DID try to temporarily abscond with some of that land by bumping his rear fence out into the easement, but someone apparently put the kybosh on him as soon as the Arlington construction got underway).  Was that width specified by City code or something?  Even if this gas pipeline is not going to be placed within this easement, is there anything else we can expect to see laid here in the future?  Because it sure as heck is BIG enough to accomodate a lot of stuff if it had to. 

These are the lingering questions that I have.  Perhaps we can get some feedback from the developer.

Foodshed fracas

There's a new upper-middle-class trend in healthy eating, and it doesn't involve mega-corporation factory farms and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) including vegetables that produce their own insecticides that later are detected in the bloodstreams of people, including unborn babies.  It involves obtaining much of your food from farmers who are known to you, who use humane animal husbandry methods, and who reject the idea of growing GMOs.  Many use partially- or completely-organic production methods on their farms, resulting in foods that are more nutritious and simply taste far better than their industrially-grown counterparts. 

The internet and other information-age tools allow us to be more directly connected with these types of farmers.  In an early-2011 post, I summarized one type of delivery method for this type of food - our local farmer's markets, which attract our community's food producers to centralized locations.    

But a new, more sophisticated and efficient method is also developing: direct delivery from farm to consumer.  This type of thing becomes cost-effective when multiple consumers participate.  I have heard of some outfits already providing these kinds of services inside the Loop, and I've also heard anecdotal reports of some neighborhoods in the Friendswood area collaborating for direct deliveries from local farmers as well. 

Of course, anything new is bound to upset people in unexpected ways, as this amusing article illustrates.  Well-known local-food advocate Joel Salatin describes a situation in which one of his upper-middle-class neighborhood delivery events was protested by a "tyrant" neighbor who invoked subdivision deed restrictions in an attempt to get him to cease and desist his order fulfillments.  Soliciting not allowed!  Commercial sales activities not allowed! 

Fortunately, homeowners associations usually cannot prohibit the delivery of goods already purchased by individual consumers.  Where would we be if FEDEX and UPS were not allowed to drop boxes off at our doorsteps?  My entire household would promptly grind to a functional halt.  And a local farmer dropping off a box of products ordered and paid for over the phone or internet is absolutely no different. 

Check out the article.  If you're at all interested in good food and supporting innovative local businesses, it's a wonderful read. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Suburban householder pain-in-butt #965

For crying out loud - if it's not one consumer thing, it's another.  A few days after we got done resolving a dead microwave that was almost brand new, our almost-brand-new Samsung washing machine went on the fritz.  Specifically, it started spewing water from some initially-unknown location.
Mmmm, sexy!!
Like many folks, we recently traded up our ugly old top-loading clunker for one of these stainless steel beauties.  These things are so pretty (as major appliances go) that Americans with smaller, older housing are now starting to follow the established European practice of integrating them into their kitchens, instead of squirreling them away in basements, garages, and other hard-to-get-to spaces.  Do a Google image search for 'washing machine in kitchen' and you'll see what I mean.
The problem with a front-loading washing machine leaking water is that you have to find the source of the leak, and those can be small enough and slow enough to be very elusive.  After a couple of different investigations failed to produce results, we found ours in a place I would not have anticipated:
Let me say that again with emphasis:
In the front door seal at the bottom, there are a couple of very tiny drainage holes which you can see more clearly if you gently pull back the rim of the rubber gasket. Those holes apparently convey water that splashes against the door back into the reservoir of the machine. It turns out that the drainage holes in our machine were plugged with accumulated lint snot, which was causing the water to overflow the seal and make it look like the seal itself was leaking. 

I didn't even realize those holes were there, or I would have checked this and cleaned it out before our laundry room got saturated. 

So anyway, there you have a more painless type of appliance resolution than we recently experienced with our microwave.  Moral of the story: If your fancy front-loader starts leaking, check this area first, before calling a repair company.  Better still, check it as a form of preventative maintenance and avoid the issue altogether.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 6: What NOT to Plant

As I'm working my way through a list of plants that could be considered suitable for small-yard spaces like most homeowners have in Centerpointe, there are a few that should be mentioned as non-starters:

(1) Dwarf magnolias.  I put this one at the top of the list because it has become a very popular choice as an accent "shrub". 
So popular, in fact, that our builder's landscaper put one in our front bed without our knowledge, about five feet from our foundation.  We plan to rip this out and either give it to a neighbor or a charitable organization.

Yes, these flowers are beautiful, but they last for exactly one day a year.
I say "shrub" in quote marks because it's only the portion above the ground that is dwarfed - the root system of a dwarf magnolia will reportedly grow to be about the same size as a tree, and will be just as invasive.  As such, it has powerful potential to damage the foundation of your house.  Houston landscape guru Randy Lemmon positively rails against this recent practice of using dwarf magnolias as close to the house as the one shown above, referring to landscapers who do this as "stupid" and "bone-headed".  It's simply not worth risking thousands of dollars of damage to your foundation - there are species with less invasive root systems that are more suitable as foundation plantings. 

(2) Palms (many species).  I'd get howls of protest for scratching this one off my list, but look at these two facts:
  • Many palms can't tolerate freezes.  This is especially true of the very popular "queen palm" types.  Back in February 2011 when we were having rolling blackouts and freezing weather, I wondered whether that resident on Harvard Pointe who had installed an entire back row of queen palms would be able to salvage any of them.  They were not.  If you look at that yard today, you'll see that all of the large queens were ripped out and replaced with something that looks from a distance like a holly-type tree.  That resident's entire investment was lost.  Even if your queen palms don't freeze outright, they tend to get damaged by frosts and look very shabby for years at a time. 
  • Some need maintenance.  Other species such as Mexican fan palm, are more resistant to freezes, but correspondingly, they need frequent maintenance, especially removal of lots of dead hanging leaves that look very ugly.  If you look at most Mexican fans in our area, mostly you'll see great collections of dead leaves with three or four live fronds at the very top.  Furthermore, they don't provide much privacy.  My purpose here is to identify low-maintenance, hardy plants, and palms don't make the list. 
Photo from Wikipedia, but most of them don't look anywhere near this nice.
(3)  Bananas.  Like palms, banana "trees" are desired for their exotic look.  They are inexpensive and demonstrate fantastically fast rate of growth and, as such, can provide privacy very quickly.  However, they also expire as quickly as they grow, and require tremendous maintenance as a result.  A "tree" that produces fruit has completed it's life cycle and will die, often in a slimy rotting heap that attracts insects, especially cockroaches.  Once established, the root systems can be difficult to remove.  I had a clump of them at a previous residence, and had to work hard to remove all traces of them.  Again, not a good choice for a plant-and-forget-about-it yard strategy.
Photo from Wikipedia.
(4) Invasive bamboo.  Notice I used the word "invasive" there; not all bamboo species are the kind that get out of control and infest residential properties without limits.  However, unless you know for sure what you're doing with bamboo, it can be much more trouble than it's worth.  There have been numerous lawsuits (such as this one) in which neighbors sue neighbors for cross-fence removal costs of this stuff.  At the same time, properly selected and controlled bamboo can provide a stunning privacy screen and/or great western-exposure sun shade for your home (even if it's a two-storey home!) without the need for much maintenance.  At the present time, I'm experimenting with some bambusa malingensis, also known as "seabreeze bamboo".  It's supposed to be particularly easy to control and well-suited for coastal counties, but it's too soon after planting for me to tell how it's going to grow in the soil conditions we have in Centerpointe.  My recommendation regarding bamboo is this: if you feel you want to try some, go talk to CayDee Caldwell of Caldwell's Nursery in Rosenberg, which specializes in bamboo.  Tell her exactly what your goals are, and let her suggest a species.  And then don't buy from anywhere else.
This is some of the b. malingensis that CayDee has growing in her nursery this past winter.  Not sure if ours will grow to look anything like this, but notice how it's neat and colorful and confined to a specific area.
OK, there are the first four on my hit-list of not-recommended plants for Centerpointe.  I'll continue on in future posts as time allows. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 5: Crape Myrtle (Unmurdered)

Randy Lemmon calls it the "Annual Crape Myrtle Massacre".  A researcher at Stephen F. Austin University trumpeted the alarm with a manifesto titled "Stop The Crape Murder!"  Both of these gentlemen were referring to the "knuckling" of Crape Myrtles, the slash-and-hack procedure about which SFA's Grant says, "This practice may look appropriate behind a chain link fence in a Mississippi trailer park, but I can assure you it is not appropriate for any landscape that you intend to be admired."

It happens everywhere, for reasons nobody really knows, other than mindless tradition.  If you drive north on Calder Road right now, you can see some real beauties there on the left side of the road, bearing the scars of overzealous butchery. 

As with Yaupon Hollies, Crape Myrtles are ubiquitous in Houston.  I prefer to use native plants as much as possible and Crapes are not native (they come from China), but their attractiveness, count-on-'em flowers, and un-killable nature prompted me to include just one specimen in our landscaping design, as an accent. 

And not just any Crape Myrtle - a white five-trunk beauty intended to break up the visual monotony of our Wax Myrtle hedge.
This was one of the few trees for which I'd taken a pic of the installation procedure.  Notice I've made the receiving hole wider than the root ball.  Randy Lemmon suggests that you do this kind of thing and mix a bit of pea gravel in with the soil used for backfilling the wider hole.  That gives the roots a bit of a running start on penetrating the surrounding area.  Our soils are very clay-rich, hard, and difficult to penetrate.

I also throw a handful of MICROLIFE into the bottom of every new hole I dig.  It's a can't-go-wrong type of mild organic fertilizer that was developed specifically for use on the Texas Gulf Coast
Here's what it looked like in its first leafing season.  Still needed to straighten itself up.
I actually bought this Crape Myrtle from a source I haven't mentioned previously: Bradshaw's Nursery in Alvin.  It's very easy to get to from Centerpointe - just go south on FM 646, turn right on FM 517, travel a vew miles, and you'll see it on the left.  About 15 minutes for the trip. 

I don't fully understand Bradshaw's actual relationship to the outside world.  They are quite clear on their homepage that they are a wholesale nursery, which is one of the reasons I don't go there very often.  They had the best Crapes I found anywhere, however, so I picked that one up there.  I paid a price that was reasonable (about $130 for this thirteen-foot specimen that I hauled home in the back of my trusty minivan) and on par with end-of-season sale prices at Houston Garden Center, but a far nicer specimen than what HGC had at the time.
Screengrab from googlemaps.

In our eastern "sister subdivision" Oaks of Clear Creek, there is a street named "Bradshaw Nursery", and I don't know why that is, either, given that the nursery is in another city.  Sometimes developers sell road names, often with the financial proceeds donated to charity, so that might have been the source of it.  Perhaps one of our local League City mavens will chime in with a blog comment explaining the connection.
But back to the issue of Crape Murder.  If you wisely choose not to "knuckle" your Crape Myrtles, that doesn't mean that you have to let them go wild and unshapely.  I've been trimming our five-trunker to be faintly reminiscent of a Baobab tree:
From Wikipedia, an example growing in Madagascar.  These are funky but elegant looking trees.

That's the Crape in the middle, as it looked last week, but upon studying this photo, I realized that both it and its Wax Myrtle companions were getting a bit scruffy and impinging on each other, so...
...they all got a haircut this past weekend. You can see that the Wax Myrtles in particular look a lot more groomed now.
This is a white Crape Myrtle because I do believe that the pink flowering varieties are over-used in landscaping, and also because the folks at Bradshaw's swore that white Crape Myrtles are the fastest growers.  We have blues and purples accenting our landscaping (more about that later) and I also did not want to detract from the overall color scheme by adding any pink.  As this one continues to grow and fill out its multi-trunk, I'll trim it gently to make it look increasingly like the canopy-style Baobab in the Wiki photo above.  It is beginning to cascade over the tops of the Wax Myrtles, which adds another layer of visual interest.

So there you have yet another landscape contender, plus a bit of a local history mystery connected to its vendor.
Nothing like an un-slaughtered Crape silhouetted against a glorious winter sunset.  Where would the photo contrast come from if I had instead chopped off all those branches??

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Microwave Misery

Completing the trying trilogy of Miffed at a Microwave and Microwave Madness, here we have the concluding component of this alliterative adventure. 

To recap the first two installations, the magnetron (microwave-generating part) in our Meritage-installed General Electric (GE) Spacemaker over-the-range microwave failed TWICE in 24 months.  The first failure was covered by warranty but not the second, even though that second magnetron was, itself, only 12 months old when it failed. 

We were then left wondering how to deal with this: install a third magnetron in the miserable thing, or buy a new microwave? 

The trouble that we found via research was that nothing jumped out at us as being a quality brand to purchase.  We were willing to pay substantially more money to get a better unit, but we just could not find any that we had confidence in.

Remember I had posted a paper pic of this contender...

...but then I read the reviews and ruled it out.  The average rating on the Lowes website was only two out of five stars.
Here is the originating link but I reckon it will expire in the future. 
The problem reported to be widespread with this one is that the control panel has a high rate of failure, and it reportedly costs $200 to repair that part, on a microwave that was listed as costing $266 at the time of this post.
But again, every other model we looked at got rotten reviews as well.   So we ended up buying this one, albeit with an action plan.
There she, newly-installed is in all her reportedly-unreliable two-star glory.
Here's part of the reason why we chose this one despite the miserable reviews:
The magnetron is about a $130 part on a $266 microwave, so this is valuable, even if the labor is not included.
Here's another part of the reason why:  Because when I was in Lowes at FM 646 picking it up last night, the salesperson himself reported that the control panel on his Samsung microwave did, in fact, fail very soon after purchase!!  And when he contacted Samsung to raise hell about it, Samsung actually replaced it for him and in so doing, gave him this advice:  don't slam the door.  The panel failures are allegedly being caused by too much vibration caused by repeatedly slamming the microwave door.  If an owner takes extra care to gently close the door each time it is used, the panel should not fail.

And here's another part of the reason why, but be careful to understand the fine print on these things:  Because I bought a two-year extended warranty for about sixty extra bucks.  BUT - bear in mind that "two year warranty" does not necessarily guarantee you two years' extra functionality, or anything remotely resembling that.  Let me explain below.

I'm not an attorney or anything close to it, so my ability to read fine print is subject to error, but I got burned recently at another store because of this type of "in-store extended warranty" phenomenon: I bought a computer printer and opted to pay for what I thought was a two-year extended warranty.  But as it turned out, all that warranty meant was that if the printer failed at any time during the two year period post-dating the manufacturer's warranty expiration, the store would replace that printer ONE TIME ONLY.  So what happened?  The printer failed when it was 13 months old.  The manufacturer's warranty was for the first 12 months, so the extended store warranty covered the failure.  The printer was replaced at 13 months, but that then became the end of the store's obligation.  In effect, I paid all that extra money for just 30 extra days (not months) of warranty coverage.

As near as I can discern, and I might be wrong on this, the 2-year Lowes extended warranty I bought for this microwave might be structured the same way.  I think it says in there that they have the option to repair or replace, but how likely are they to opt to incur labor costs on a $266 item?  Not very likely, especially if the part that typically goes bad is about $200 - that suggests that any failure makes the thing an immediate write-off.  My suspicion is that they would simply hand me a new microwave and say "Good luck to you."  And the warranty would terminate at that point, even if it were just one month into the apparent coverage period.  That's just my suspicion, but buyer beware.  So the extra sixty bucks I paid probably gives me eventual access to a second microwave - that's all I'm assuming.  But hopefully if we take care of the thing, that will help us achieve a respectable lifespan for it.

Meanwhile, we're not chunking the twice-broken GE Spacemaker.  I'm stuffing it into our attic for future reference, just in case a class-action lawsuit does get off the ground. 

Doves, Part 4

Well, I'm an empty-nester, at least in the literal sense of it.
Scene looking out through two slats in the window blinds.  The bigger squab was the one to launch first.  In the way of many birds, he (or she) actually sat on the back of this chair for quite some time getting his bearings in his (or her) first trip out of the nest.
The smaller squab left the nest about an hour later, perching on top of a wind chime until getting his (or her) bearings.
They actually both returned to the nest last night, after spending their afternoon in the great outdoors.  According to Wiki, their father (not their mother) will continue to feed them for up to two weeks now that they have fledged (both parents participate in raising them - I didn't know that until looking it up just now). 

Meanwhile, it's time for me to give that bedraggled hanging plant some much-needed water. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Doves, Part 3

Look at what a difference a few days make in baby dove development:
April 2, 2012
April 7, 2012
Just five days.  Wow. 

A dove was killed in our back yard yesterday, probably by the Cooper's hawk that we see on a regular basis here.
Between our yard and our next-door neighbors' yard, there is a discrete trail of feathers suggesting that the entire bird was methodically stripped before being consumed.
Fortunately this victim of Nature was not the mother of our twin fledglings, and she's still feeding them.  Any day now, they'll fly the nest. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 4: POH Yaupon Holly

Be open to yaupon.  (In case you're not familiar with the term, that sentence rhymes).

I should have been more clear at the outset of my landscaping posts about my intentions: identifying a variety of landscape plants that will make for an interesting and practical (i.e., private) back yard assemblage that requires virtually no maintenance or intervention of any kind

There are plenty of alternatives to the plants I'm listing here that are more exotic and sexy.  We live in a humid subtropical climate that lends itself very well to the growing of a wide variety of showstopping landscape plants.  However, the trouble with many of them is, unless you baby them and treat them with various chemicals, they won't do well for you.  You'll either be out there spraying and dipping and digging and watering and fertilizing and treating according to the schedule they demand, or you'll have dead plants. 

Nothing in my back yard gets treated with chemicals, ever.  If something gets attacked by some insect or fungus, I let it die and move on to trying the next hopefully-more-resilient candidate. 

I'm primarily aiming these posts at the Centerpointe residents who currently have nothing whatsoever in their back yards.  Obviously these are not residents who care to spend every weekend manicuring their landscapes, or they would have demonstrated that kind of behavior already.  These are typically the busy two-earner family-oriented professionals who need hands-off economical landscaping options that are suitable enough to create privacy and increase their property values accordingly, but who may have the time and energy to work on their landscapes only a few days each year.   

This perspective comes to mind at this moment because, if I recommend yaupon, some folks would be inclined to say, "That plant is SO over-done."

Well, there's a REASON why it's overdone - it's pretty and once it's established, it almost cannot be killed.  It's native to our area, evergreen, and is a landscape work-horse whether in miniature or larger form.

And the POH, which stands for Pride of Houston yaupon cultivar, is really special because, not only does it provide wonderful screening...
Like many Centerpointe residents, we have a few dreaded utility boxes inside our backyard easement.  Behind these POH's there is an ugly electrical utility box and an even-uglier Comcast utility box, but you can't really see them because the POH's shield them so well.
...it also is unique in the sheer number of flowers and berries it produces:
This is a pic from a previous post.  In the spring, POH's are covered with white flowers that are very attractive to just about every insect.
Wow!  The brightest scarlet berries persist on POH's for months, basically from the fall until they drop off the following spring just in time for the next flowering.
Once the roots are well established, POH's basically never need watering or care.  They're native to Houston.  They live here naturally and they can deal with the environment without assistance.  I've never seen a native yaupon attacked by any pests.

Like the other choices I've listed, they don't cost much.  I have four of them that I bought at the Lowes hardware store on FM 646.  I saw them come into the store in the spring of 2010, mature five-footers, beautiful shapely POH specimens, but they were priced at $100 apiece due to their large size.  So I waited, and waited, and waited... and sure enough, that fall, they went on sale for $30 apiece, and I bought the store's entire remaining stock of them.    Again, not much money for a plant that now defines the entire northwest corner of my back yard.
Try some non-frustrating POH's, and the only red you'll be seeing will be in the annual outrageous proliferation of berries. 
I've also seen them for sale at Houston Garden Center, where the tags may say "POH" only, minus the words "yaupon holly".

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part III: Layouts

I'm going to diverge from my plant-by-plant assessment of what (in my opinion) would be appropriate to integrate into a small-Centerpointe-yard landscaping plan, and focus on the issue of how to actually position trees and shrubs around a yard for maximum artistic impact. 

In my mind's eye, I can hear people saying to themselves, "Well, sure, some Texas wax myrtle might be a versatile and cheap choice for my yard... but I don't know how to arrange them and other plants so that they look good."

I use two very general artistic principles in DIY landscapingdiagonals and thirds (and to a lesser extent, the "golden section" rule, which is mostly a reference to focal point).  Even if you do not consider yourself to be artistic, if you simply apply these basic mechanical principles on their face, odds are good that you'll come out OK with a DIY landscape plan.

Basically what these rules say is that your eye prefers to see scenes chopped up into thirds, because a view of stuff chopped into halves is somehow unsettling to the brain.  And it prefers to see diagonal lines because horizontal lines are severe and discordant and visually-flattening, whereas diagonal lines impart movement and energy to a scene.  And the eye wants something to anchor itself as a focus.

Here is an easy smaller-scale example:

I bet your eye finds the scene in that photo to be fairly pleasing, doesn't it?  Here's why:
There are boundaries and visual cues in the scene suggestive of thirds...
...there are linear elements forming primary and secondary diagonals, which impart energy to the scene...
...and there's a nice big focal point.
Design gets a little tougher when you're dealing with a very shallow back yard, however, especially when you have competing objectives:  not only does the vegetation have to look good in the way of making an artistic impact, in Centerpointe, that vegetation has to provide a practical function (privacy screen) as well.  So compromises usually have to be made.  The biggest challenge to many Centerpointe homeowners is going to be creating an illusion of depth and movement when there's almost no backyard depth to work with:
I only have a puny 23 feet of depth to work with in the space between our back porch and the rear fenceline!!  The property is 70 feet wide, but the visual effect is flatter than a pancake because of the corresponding lack of depth.
My freedom to form visual thirds with my design was weaker here because there's a 2-story house behind the two wax myrtles on the right, and I had to concentrate on blocking that to the extent possible.  That was Priority #1. 
I had to concentrate on imparting as many visual diagonals as possible in a space that had almost no depth to work with.  But these two points are important:
(1) Notice how many of the resulting visual diagonals converge on the focal point.
(2) Notice that the focal point is off-set to one side.  Focal points do not need to be in the center of the field of view.  In fact, often times, you will unwittingly create an undesirable "halves-ie" view by centering them. 
Focal point, about which I'll post later.
You'll see these same principles manifesting in other blog entries, such as the one about Italian cypress
So there you have some compositional ideas about how to best turn your sow's ear of a tiny back yard into something that more closely resembles a silk purse.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Microwave madness

So, in yesterday's post, I asked for anyone to contact me if they had issues with their builder-installed microwave oven. 

I should have just gone straight to the Source of All Local Wisdom - the big-box retailers.  After patiently explaining my dilemma last night, explaining that I've had two magnetron failures inside 24 months, Salesperson Who Shall Remain Nameless replied,

"All these brand new houses you see around here were built with GE appliances, and they're all crap - they fail [in high numbers].  These new homeowners constitute the majority of our customer base [for new microwave oven sales]."

One person's opinion.  I stress that it's a seller's opinion rather than representing the results of a formal appliance-cratering investigation. 

But it's a very telling opinion, isn't it??  And so was the answer to my next question:

"Is there any brand or model that I can buy that will come with a magnetron that will work for more than 12 months?  It's OK if I pay a little more for reliability.  I just want a microwave oven that will last so I don't have to go through this hassle for a third time."  Answer, again, one person's opinion:

"No.  They all look different on the outside, but it's basically all the same equipment on the inside of them.  One is as likely to fail as any other.  The price differences you see basically represent styling [rather than construction quality]."

So isn't THAT special.  For the moment, this leaves us stuck without a working OTR (over-the-range) microwave. 
As an aside, let me mention that we never buy any new item for our house without "trying it out" in the space to see how it works and looks.  Here, I took a replacement candidate, enlarged a photo of it, printed it out in sections, taped the sections together, and then stuck the resulting composite photo in the space where the microwave is to go.  While I liked the resulting aesthetic effect, I quickly abandoned plans to buy this model after reading on-line reviews of it.
We're not sure how to best resolve this issue, but are still researching it.  Do we locate a magnetron on the open market with greater than a 12-month warranty and have it installed in the existing machine, or do we invest in a new machine? 

I'd be willing to invest in a new machine regardless of magnetron quality IF such an investment would solve two related issues for us:
  1. The under-mounted lights in OTR microwave models are pathetic, in my opinion.  They are tiny incandescent bulbs that do not light the cooktop at all.  Furthermore, they are specialty bulbs that cannot simply be swapped out for higher-wattage bulbs (I've tried).  If we could find a manufacturer that produces microwaves with a halogen or LED bulb option, it might be worth paying for.
  2. The exhaust fans in most OTR microwave models are pathetic, in my opinion.  Hurray for us - we finally got a house with exterior venting, but the GE builder-grade microwave's fan is so weak that it can't pull air away from the cooktop.  I believe that the installed model is rated at 300 cubic feet per minute (CFM) but if that's true, it's woefully insufficient.  (I should note here that the same salesperson warned us that new microwaves come with a default configuration that exhausts air into the house.  So even if your builder hooked your microwave to an exterior vent line, if they did not manually switch the exhaust route, the vent line may be useless.  I'm not sure if this is affecting us... it seems to release some air back into the house, but not all of it, which the salesperson said is not really possible given how they are built... further investigation is needed here on our parts.)
In closing, let me underscore the extent to which our problems with the GE Spacemaker microwave are not unique, both with complaint threads and with a video and with a "feeler" site for a potential class action lawsuit:
In investigating whether magnetron replacement would be an option for us, I did some internet research and found a YouTube tutorial where they explain how the replacement is done.  TWENTY-THREE THOUSAND HITS on this tutorial as of the date of this post.  This stuff ain't light entertainment - this is the kind of video you only watch if you need to - such as, if you're replacing your magnetron.  And there's another one with sixteen thousand hits.  Can you imagine that many people needing instructions on how to repair a single brand / model of microwave?  That says a lot.  It doesn't even necessarily count those additional owners who decided simply to chunk their ovens and buy new ones.