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Vertical garden update

A year on and it seems vertical gardening is still as popular as ever. I’m always being asked how the vertical garden is looking and if I would change anything.

Well, I won’t sugar coat it for you. There’s lots I’ve had to change. Mostly because I live in Western Sydney where the weather forecast for this week ranges from 33-36 degrees Celsius! Plants find these conditions hard, especially if, you know, um, sit in the air con and forget to, like, water them.

Let me break it down for you.

What works

  • the Hills system is still hanging on the fence and hasn’t cracked and has minimum fading, which isn’t very noticeable. I half expected quite a bit of fading because it’s outdoors and gets sun, and everything else in those two categories hasn’t held up, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Would I buy it again? Yep.
  • the individual pots in the Hills system allows me to swap plants around. This has been great for plants that have needed a little less sun (move towards the bottom) and to replace dead plants without disturbing the whole lot.
  • grass plant varieties have done far better than the shrubs and ground covers. They seem to handle the heat better, stay green longer and have filled out nicely. I don’t have to water these as much as the other plants. These have been my favorites:
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Grasses from the list above, a couple of months after planting.

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Same grasses, one year on. A couple of plants have been swapped around.

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Same grasses. They’ve filled out off the wall and the mature leaves hang down.

What hasn’t worked

  • the little water level float on the Hills system gets stuck. You really need to give it a tap to knock it free and then you can read the level (always empty, in my case!). Not a big deal, but it is a bit annoying.
  • the top of the Hills system has a little hole there for you to fill the water up, presumably with a watering can. That happened about 3 times in my house, before I worked out that I could shove the hose down the back of the top row and fill it in a quarter of the time.
  • speaking of watering, these little things really need water every day or every other day in summer. In the cooler months they go a while between drinks, but in the heat of the Australian summer they really need quite a bit of water. Over the Christmas break we took a 2 week holiday- most of the shrubs have dried up and died! I definitely recommend setting up an automatic watering system. Not hard or expensive to do, but can be tricky depending on where the nearest tap is. (Probably worth noting that our plants receive quite a bit of west facing sun in summer, which is the enemy of green things.)
  • the Rock daisy didn’t last long. This didn’t surprise me as it hasn’t really lasted long anywhere else in our garden, either!
  • the Little Ruby Alternanthera dentata is quite sensitive to the heat and wilts. It looked lovely for one summer, but this year has gone very stalky. I guess I was supposed to cut it back. I’m going to cut it down close to ground level and see what happens.
  • The Silverstar Liriope muscari isn’t doing too badly, but is certainly lost in the vigor of the other grasses. I’ve had more success growing this one in shadier places.
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Mixed plants, a couple of months after planting.

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Mixed plants, on year on. The Rock Daisy is long gone. The Little Ruby (purple) has wilted over our two week holiday (no water!), and has also gone pretty stalky. The Silverstar is the white looking one in the middle- rowing ok but not competing well with the upright foliage of the yellowy Shara and green Tankia.

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Mixed plants, one year on. Hmm, needs a bit of work.

Tips for success

  • do as much homework as you can on the plants, but be prepared for a bit of trial and error for your specific circumstances. If your garden is in the sun, it will definitely be drier than an average garden bed. If it’s in complete shade, it will likely hold the water a lot longer and perhaps even be a bit soggier than an average garden bed. If you have a spot like mine, that gets lots of heat and sun in summer and then almost no sun in winter, then pick something that can cope with both. There are miracle plants out there. The Isabella Liriope muscari has performed well in several areas of my garden and I can’t seem to kill it (miracle!). The Just Right Liriope muscari  has been a little slower growing than some of the others but is definitely looking the most lush.
  • ‘full sun’ and ‘heat’ are not the same thing. If your garden is going to face west, try to pick plants that are heat tolerant.
  • if you’re buying 140 mm or larger pots of plants when you start out, you can definitely break them up into a few separate plants to save some money.
  • remember to fertilise. The vertical garden is pretty much wholly dependent on you. Good thing there’s plenty of slow release fertilisers out there.
  • a vertical garden still needs a bit of love. You’ll still need to prune, remove dead foliage and replace dead plants from time to time.
  • check the darn water!

Are you going to the show?

My goodness, it’s that time of year again! The HIA Sydney Home Show kicked off today and is running through the weekend, concluding at 6 pm Sunday evening.

This year there’s over 280 exhibitors showing everything from toilets to advanced therapy spas (think I’m going to like that one). Best of all, this year there’s free entry.

We had a great time being awed by all the new fandangled products last time, you can read more here.

If you want to learn more about the home show, visit their website. Maybe we’ll see you there!

Puppy problems

If any of you out there own a dog, or perhaps two dogs under 18 months of age, like we do, you will know that they may well be cute but they sure are little monsters.

Ever the dutiful guard puppies, they will notify us of all manner of breaches of perimeter. On one memorable occasion, the larger of the two took offence to a wayward cockroach, attempting to bark it to death. I don’t even want to know what happened to the slug that I discovered on their bed. Let’s just say I mistook it for a piece of raw chicken.

They are especially ferocious wherever grass or plants are involved. I’ve not met two dogs who have such an appetite for Australian natives.

While I can do my best to chicken-wire off plants until they’re big enough to fight back against the dogs, the lawn is another matter. They are dead-set on destroying Jame’s pride and joy and he’s having to resort to desperate measures in order to keep those pesky paws out.

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Desperate times.

So, in the spirit of sharing-is-caring, here’s what we know:

  1. Dogs are definitely smarter than they look. Ours have learned that we’re quite distracted any time the TV is on. They use this opportunity to dig a quick hole, eat a small pot plant, or chew a piece of outdoor furniture.
  2. Dogs have great hearing. They know it takes us about 15 seconds from the time the TV turns off to get to the back door to inspect the damage. They also know they have about 10 seconds from the start of someone descending the stairs. In that short amount of time they will have innocently positioned themselves in their kennel. Someone else must have done it, we’ve been here the whole time.
  3. Good hearing does not equal comprehension of the English language. Boy, I wish I knew dog language for “GET OUT OF THE DAMN GARDEN!”
  4. Make sure you play spot-the-difference when buying wire to keep the mutts out. There are a lot of interesting variations on the good old “chicken wire” with special products on the market for “animal wire”, “puppy wire” and “dog wire”. For example, you could easily make the mistake of buying animal netting for $39.97 when all you really need is chicken netting for $16.99 .
  5. On the topic of chicken wire- they will dig under it if they can. We solved that problem by getting the staple gun out and stapling the wire to some leftover timber lying around. Sleepers worked a treat. They can’t seem to lift the timber to get under the wire. Muahahaha!
  6. We’ve had some limited success with Skedaddle. It seems to work best in small spots, like inside one or two holes but not over large patches of lawn. That said, it definitely does not create a magical dog-repelling force-field. Shame, really.
  7. We’ve also had some success with reducing pee-stains on the lawn with Dog Rocks. You just put it in their water bowl. One of our dogs insisted on taking it back out again but she gave up eventually.
  8. They don’t seem to like spiky plants. Funny that, hey? Hence, my favourite type of plant at the moment is the grevillia!
  9. They LOVE vegies. They will know when your tomatoes, berries, snow peas, lemongrass, and anything else edible is ready for picking before you will. Excellent noses. Our dogs even occasionally take a lemon leaf for a chew.
  10. Not all plants are safe for dogs, many are even toxic. The RSPCA has a link to the US Pet Poison List which will tell you all about it. Jump on there and tick the “plants” box to be amazed. Burke’s Backyard also has a neat list. Of course, chat to your vet to get the best advice.

Maybe the future of dog ownership will be less frustrating with some new products hitting the market. Check out this idea by Ozbreed, called Scuff Turf.

 

What everyone’s been asking

Since it’s now been a year since we moved in I thought I might try and answer some of the questions everyone has been asking us. If you have any burning questions of your own, pop them in a comment and I’ll see what I can do!

Did we get our rebate back?

Yes! We got the full sustainability and landscaping rebate from Landcom, the whole $10 000. Thank goodness!

Was it easy?

No, I liken it to pulling teeth. On top of submitting the application there was a house visit, then there was a follow up with a bazillion emails and phone calls. The DRP didn’t like that we’d planted small plants, even though we had planted an extra 50 native plants throughout the garden (we knew that would be an issue). So, we had to plant two additional trees in the front yard to compensate. We also had to prove that we had not left holes in the hedge where the sewer manholes are. I’m rolling my eyes while I type this, but we had mulched over the manholes with a light covering and we actually had to dig up the mulch and take photos in order to prove that the manholes were really there (geeze, why would I make that up?). We also had to prove that we had planted a native hedge species because DRP didn’t believe me on that either… sigh. Oh well, we got the money in the end, YEAH!

How are the appliances? 

Good, except the oven. The oven has had an issue with the thermostat. Lucky it’s still under warranty and we had it fixed at no expense. Hope it stays unbroken from here on in!

Are there lots of settlement cracks?

There are a few on the inside, but nothing too dramatic. Hairline cracks that we will fix with fill and paint when we feel like it (probably never!). Nothing on the outside that I’ve noticed.

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Example of the kind of settlement cracks we’ve got. Nothing unusual.

Anything you hate?

Yes, the gloss paint they used on all the doors, skirting and trims etc has yellowed considerably. Especially in areas that don’t get a lot of light, like behind furniture. Pretty annoying to have lovely white walls and yellowing trims.

How are the sinks, taps, showers?

Showers are lovely. Taps are nice but get a lot of fingerprints, water marks etc on them. Doesn’t bother me too much but if you’re a fanatic you’ll be bugged by it. Sinks are lovely in design but lacking in functionality. They’re very shallow and dirt, soap bubbles, toothpaste and anything in between stays in the bottom of the sink. I’m FOREVER cleaning them. Would I get them again? Probably not!

This is what my sink looks like 99% of the time. Gross!

This is what my sink looks like 99% of the time. Gross!

Anything you didn’t expect?

Yes. Everything is square and pointy. Like the towel rails and door handles. I find myself bumping into them every five minutes and have a collection of bruises to prove it. (Will spare you the photos…)

What do you LOVE?

The fact that a lot of the house faces north and we get lovely winter sunlight coming into the house. Perfect. Great excuse to become a lounge lizard. We’re pretty damn proud of our turfing job as well. Can’t believe we did that ourselves.

What was totally worth it?

The strip lighting under the overhead kitchen cupboards. Was a pain to get the builder to do but worth it in the end. Can’t imagine life without them. Some kind of under cupboard lighting is fantastic.

Well, that’s my brain dead for tonight. Let me know if there’s something I’ve missed!

Doing it ourselves: the landscaping saga! Part three: Turf

Absolutely sick to death of the dirt trampling into the house, and with the promise of an extra set of helping hands, we excitedly ordered turf.

If you can recall our landscaping plan, we actually had a fair bit of turf to buy. Not only did the developer require us to turf our own land but also the council nature strip around our property as well. Since we’re on a corner block, that was a significant extra amount of turf. That’s one of the reasons I believe houses on a corner should be eligible for a greater DRP rebate, but don’t get me started on that.

What kind of turf? The most expensive kind, of course! The developer required us to use Sir Walter Buffalo, which tends to sell for about $8/sq m. As its one of the licenced brands it can only be grown by and purchased from licenced retailers. We ended up getting ours from Turtle Nursery as we were getting a whole bunch of mulch delivered at the same time.

Originally, we thought this grass was a bit prickly underfoot. When we were deciding if we should plant this grass out the front and the back, or go for a softer variety in the back yard, James’ called around and asked the experts. Turns out that Sir Walter is a soft leaf buffalo and is by far the best choice around. I’d hate to know what a hard leaf buffalo looks like! Anyway, if you’re unsure, Buy Turf Online has a handy comparison table and if you want a hard wearing, drought resistant lawn with excellent all year colour then you had better go with the Sir Walter Buffalo. Now it’s three weeks since we planted it and when I walk on it barefoot I don’t know why I ever thought it was prickly.

Here’s how much turf we brought:

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$3400 worth. As you can see from the pictures, we hadn’t even finished spreading out all the dirt or digging out the garden beds.

Unfortunately, our help bailed on us and we were left doing the whole lot by ourselves. 😐

Like all of this landscaping stuff, we have not done any of it before. We have been learning along the way. Many friends wanted to give us all kinds of advice about the best way to do it but in the end you should really just contact the supplier for some advice. Normally, when you’ve just purchased $3400 worth of turf from them they’re happy to give you some advice about how to install it!

Here were our top questions and the answers we got:

Should I fertilise the ground before I lay the turf, or should I apply a fertliser just after it’s been installed or some other time? 

There is no need to fertilise the ground before the turf goes down and you don’t need to apply any kind of fertiliser until about 4-6 weeks after it has been installed. In fact, if you do add a fertiliser before then you’re both wasting your money and not doing your lawn any favours. Do a google image search for over fertilised lawn and see what I mean!

What’s the secret to success?

Water it. Lots. Straight away. It’s important to not let the turf dry out at any stage, for at least the first two weeks. How much and how often to water to achieve this depends on the season. Since we’re in the middle of summer, we were watering 3 times a day for the first couple of days, and then twice a day for about a week. After that we’ve been watering each afternoon. Keep in mind the clay we have has been holding a lot of water. If you’re in a more sandy spot you may have to water more frequently.

How do I best lay it out?

Well, you just roll it out! It really doesn’t matter too much how you do it. In the back yard we went around the edge first and then filled in the middle. In the front yard we just rolled it out in rows. The edges, it seems, no matter what you do, will always want to dry out first. Try to make sure the ends of the turf are close together. Put big bits of turf on the edges and the cuts on the inside. We tried about 5 different ways to cut the turf but the best was just chopping it with the spade or shovel. There are loads of how-to instructions and videos on the internet, like this one:

Should I roll it?

Rolling the turf after you’ve installed it can be beneficial. It can help to make sure the turf has good contact with the soil. For us, it would have been impossible. The topsoil we spread became so muddy after it got wet that we would have just sunk into the lawn. Needless to say, we didn’t bother with the roller and we still have good results. There are a few dips in the lawn but we will top dress them with soil and eventually they will all even out.

Can I walk on it straight away?

Um, no. Stay off it until as long as possible! After 3-4 weeks the turf will be starting to grip onto the soil and it will be ok to walk on it then.

How long should I wait to mow it?

Don’t mow your new lawn until it has definitely taken root. You should not be able to lift the lawn up anymore. Most of the time this takes about 4 weeks and the grass should be at least 6 cm high. When you do cut it, make sure your mower is set on the highest possible setting. Don’t be tempted to cut it really short. (This is also true in winter, you should cut your lawn about 2 cm higher in winter than summer, to avoid stress).

How long do I have to lay the turf once it’s been delivered?

Hard to say, but 48 hours is generally all you have. As with the installed turf, don’t let the rolls dry out. We watered our stacks of turf in the evening to help stop them drying out. But don’t go too heavy with the water or you’ll never be able to lift them!


In the end it took the two of us all weekend and the Friday afternoon to get the job done. Don’t forget that we spread tonnes of soil as well, and dug out the clay in the garden bed and filled it with the native mix. Huge jobs. If we just had to lay the turf down it would have probably only taken a day and a half. The back yard, for example, where all the soil was already spread and leveled, was done in 3 hours.

Was it hard? Not really. The turf installation was actually pretty easy, it was the soil spreading that I absolutely hated! Installing the turf was instantly rewarding and moves along fairly fast.

The rolls of turf are fairly heavy, especially if they’re really wet. I could move the lighter ones on the top of the pile pretty easily but James had to help me with some of the big, heavy rolls on the bottom of the pile. As I got tired, James would lift them into position and then I could just kick the roll to spread it out.

Also, you can’t be afraid of the dirt. The rolls of turf are essentially rolls of dirt and you get covered in it. No joke, it gets everywhere. On top of that, if you are scared of spiders it might not be your thing. There were lots! It’s like installing your very own ecosystem.

Photos, you ask? Well, obviously we were too damn busy to take photos because there simply isn’t any! I’m so annoyed that we forgot to take a few. But, here’s some from today. It’s been two and a half weeks since we laid the turf. As you can see, there are some dry bits that haven’t taken quite as well as others, but they’re already growing through.

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We had some turf left over. It was hard to work out exactly how much we needed and we over ordered rather than risk not having enough. We put it on Gumtree for free and it was taken within minutes! It wen’t to a lovely couple who very much appreciated the gift.

Turbo needs a new home!

Meet Turbo!

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Turbo is about 2 years old. He’s a Jack Russell cross Red Healer with plenty of energy. He’s very playful and gets on well with people but needs time to get to know other dogs.

He’s microchiped but not desexed. He’s house trained.

Unfortunately, Turbo’s owner (my brother) can’t keep him where they rent because there is no backyard. So Turbo needs a new family.

He’s in Sydney for the weekend but normally lives in Wollongong. If you know anyone who might be interested in taking Turbo home leave me a comment so we can get in touch.

Finally!

Yesterday we received the “final documents”. We spent a few hours last night pouring over the numbers and making sure nothing had been pushed out of the contract (or added in, for that matter). To our absolute amazement, there were only a few niggling things that irritated the perfectionists in us. We signed it and we’re sending it back this morning.

Basically, it was nothing we hadn’t seen before. I have absolutely no idea why it took a month. It looks like a cut and paste job to me.

We’re told now that our paperwork will go to “estimating and construction” where they will order our supplies.

Back to waiting, I suppose.

$@%!

Once we signed the preliminary final variation we were told it would take 10-15 days to prepare the final documents.

Today is day 15 so I asked for an update. I was told I would ‘hopefully’ have the final documents by the end of the day.

2:30 pm rolls by and I get another email with an apology- actually, the documents won’t be ready until mid-week.

Why will it take a full month to prepare the documents? Because two staff members were sick last week and two are on leave this week.

It’s taking all my self control right now not to unleash three paragraphs of profanities.

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Feedback sandwich

Lately, while we wait and wait and wait, I’ve been reflecting on what would have made this process better for us.

Given that we’re absolute novices I’m content with the choices we’ve made thus far. There isn’t a great deal I would change. It’s certainly not going to be a palace of any sort, but we never intended it to be. So, as I reflect on what could have made the whole thing go more smoothly, I can’t help but pick the low hanging fruit: this admin process has been tedious.

We’ve entered the building industry as customers in a time when residential building development in Sydney is soaring. It’s projected that greater Sydney will need 27 500 new homes every year to meet demand. In each of the last 5 years around 14 500 homes were built. So basically, if we’re going to have enough houses for the extra 1.3 million people coming to Sydney by 2031, then the building industry is going to have to pick up it’s game. Alternatively, if you’ve been thinking about starting your own building company then perhaps it’s time to make hay while the sun is shining! (If you would like to know more about planning strategies in Sydney check out the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy website and this community guide.)

So as a customer, making one of the biggest purchases of my life, I have some feedback for all the builders out there. This is by no means a dart throwing exercise solely at the builder we’re working with. I’m yet to met a customer who hasn’t commented on at least one of these points.

  • Be upfront – we know you’re trying to sell us something, but we’re not after a used car. Be upfront about how long your admin and construction times are, how much extra most people spend on top of the base prices, and what things are not included.
  • Work on your attention to detail – as a customer essentially paying for your skills in project management, I’m going to be fairly annoyed fairly quickly if I find silly mistakes in every second thing you send me. If I’ve asked for window A to be replaced with window B and I find you’ve charged me for window A plus B (and it’s not the first time you’ve done it, either), I wonder what on earth I have to do to make myself understood. I also wonder If I should buy a bulk pack of magnifying glasses so I can micro-manage you more effectively. Having an attention to detail extends to even the simplest of things, if you send me a summary of variations then I expect the numbers to match up with the all the variations you’ve given me (common sense, right?) You should check! It would work in your favor too, because along with being overcharged I’ve also been undercharged!
  • “Engineering fees” – don’t insult me by asking me to pay for something without any explanation of what I’m paying for. If you were in my shoes, and someone mailed you a invoice with two words on it, would you pay it without question?
  • Know what you’re contractors/suppliers are up to – it might not be obvious to you, but they are very much the face of your business. If your customer has a bad experience at the kitchen place, they’re going to be blaming you, the builder, just as much as the kitchen people themselves. You should know and check what prices your contractors are charging, how long it should take for paperwork to be returned and you should ask your customers to provide feedback.
  • I want to be able to brag – people are always asking me whether I’m happy with the builder, would I go with them again and would I recommend them? In an industry with hundreds of builders for us to choose from there is an awful lot of word-of-mouth going on. I want to be able to use these adjectives to describe you: professional, friendly, customer focused, reliable, thorough, honest, high quality, efficient, trustworthy, reasonable. Ask your customers how they describe you-  we might give you a feedback sandwich. If you’re lucky, we’ll try not to throw it at you!

Feedback sandwhich

Are we there yet?

Well, 28 February, our supposed start date, has well and truly been and gone. Sigh.

As we plough on through March we are still receiving and signing (you guessed it) paperwork.

Last week it was signing off on the final colour selection document. We received it mid week and there was a minor error in it (one of the wardrobes had the wrong kind of shelving) and it took the rest of the week to correct the mistake. Whole week gone.

This week I received a call from our Admin person (which is strange, she never calls), saying that we were nearly there and that the admin process can sometimes be drawn out (you’re kidding me?) and could I please sign the preliminary final variation.

This is like a summary of all the variations we’ve had so far. We have to review it and send it back so they can send us the final variation.

Good thing, I suppose, that it’s only preliminary because there were two mistakes. The first is that solar had been forgotten. Our contract has a provisional allowance for solar and now is the time to remove all the provisional allowances and have it costed out. So the paperwork has gone back to the people who find the numbers. The second mistake is that they have charged us $360 to do the BAL inspection (find out what BAL we are) which they didn’t even do. We know they didn’t do it because we supplied them with our independent report instead. They are going to take the charge back off the variation.

So, we’re back to waiting for the paperwork. When they get the preliminary final variation right I will sign it and they will prepare the final documents. These documents will be the final variation, the “end panel” (which is a copy of the tender plus all the variations), a progress payment schedule and the construction plans.

If there is no mistake in the final documents I will be overcome with amazement and require hospitalisation.

Anyway, the email says the final documents will take 10-15 days to prepare so we can kiss goodbye to the rest of March and more than likely April too. Basically, we’re extremely disappointed.

On a positive note, the plants we brought a few months ago are mostly doing very well. The Lilly Pilly keeps making lots of glossy new leaves and the Christmas Bush even put a few flowers on show for us. The Purple Fountain Grass have doubled in size and I love the fluffy ‘flowers’. I’m also really impressed by the Warratahs which have grown much faster than I expected. Unfortunately, two of the three dusky bells have died from unknown causes which is making us hesitant to buy more. They claim to be ‘easy to grow’ but clearly not easy enough for Mr and Miss Novice Gardeners. We might pick something else instead. I hope the rest of the plants stay alive – looks like we’re going to be moving in a lot later than we expected.

Here are some before (6 Jan) and after (13 Mar) photos. Sorry, they’re not the best quality.

Lilly Pilly

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Warratah

Downloads

Christmas Bush

Downloads

Purple Fountain Grass

Purple fountain grass

Here is what the garden looks like now:

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