Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ding-Dong the wall is done...

On Saturday, the last brick went up, and the Great Wailing Hadrian-like Wall was declared complete! Now we can bring in sand and topsoil to fill the play area and gardens, and start work on the pool rehab.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ants, Aphids, Apples - A, A, A

Today's post is brought to you by the letter A. I didn't plan it that way, but its what we've got.

In your garden, have you ever noticed trails of ants running up and down the stems of your plants? Have you ever wondered what the ants (who are normally scavengers) are doing on your greenery? Well, if you pay close attention, you will see that those ants are actually farmers, and what they are farming is honeydew - produced by aphids.

While I'm not a fan of aphids munching away on my young espalier, this is one of nature's symbiotic relationships that I find mystifying. It's right on the edge of science fair material for me, except that I'm too old for those any more. But anyways, lets look at this relationship, and then talk about how to stop it.

Aphids will survive Canada's cold winters, but not well. Ants like to have a supply of food on hand. Honeydew is good for that. So the ants help the aphids get a head start on other garden pests the next year.

In the summer, ants will gather "slave" aphids and place them on plants near their nests. These aphids are milked by the ants to produce honeydew,  a sugary liquid excreted by the aphids. The honeydew is stored up by the ants as part of the colony's food reserve. Come autumn, the ants will carry the aphids' eggs underground, into the ant colony where they will be put "in storage" well below the frost line until the eggs hatch the following summer.

The aphids are then carried to the new shoots of young plants where they will feed and be milked for a new crop of honeydew. Through the summer, the ants will defend the aphids from their natural predators (ladybugs and wasps) and will move the aphids to the new shoots of new plants as they emerge. A pretty cool situation - except that the ants are pretty ruthless slavedrivers.

Nature has given aphids the ability to fly, but only if conditions are too crowded, and only in order to lay eggs farther away. Ants will actually tear the wings off aphids to prevent them leaving with their eggs. Also, the ants have so 'domesticated' the aphids that in some cases the only way for them to poop is if an ant is milking them. Not exactly fantastic if you're an aphid.

For us, the ant/aphid situation isn't really very bad right now. The aphids are there, and the tell-tale yellow spots are on the leaves of some of the espalier, which gives away which trees have ants and aphids on them (if you see spots, watch for ants. If you see ants, flip a young leaf over and look for aphids). The spots are a little ugly, but really its only cosmetic damage the aphids are doing.

To solve the problem, a 3-pronged approach is needed.
1. Protect the plants with natural predators like ladybugs or parasitic wasps
2. Attack the slavedriver ants by using Borax and diatomaceous earth
3. Attack the slaves by first spraying with a strong stream of water, then spraying the plants with "Murphy's Oil Soap" which will coat and kill soft-bodied bugs like aphids.

Whatever you do will have to be ongoing until all the eggs layed by the aphids have died. And one aphid lays about 100 eggs per day. Those ants will be moving the eggs to protect their herd, so you are really trying to break a strong cycle here. Good luck, and happy aphid hunting!

See how the Espalier Garden popped in 2014 here!


A friend asked whether ants also shepherded scale insects - something I had never considered before, so I did a quick Google hunt, and waddaya know, University of Michigan has done pretty cool research on the correlation of ant colonies to scale insects as they relate to the power function.

Here is a closing statement from the brief on their research (full text available here: - the geek in me loves when math and nature explain each other.

"Considering everything they know about the system they've been studying for the past eight years, Vandermeer and Perfecto came up with an explanation for both the power function and the deviations from it: Scale insects looking for a home encounter coffee bushes at random, and the population on a particular bush grows as insects that have taken up residence there reproduce and others join them.

At first, large numbers of bushes have few or no scale insects, just because none happened to find them yet. That accounts for the excess of bushes with few or no insects and explains the deviation at the low end of the graph.

Once all or almost all the bushes have at least one scale insect, all the populations increase exponentially, giving rise to the typical power function.

On bushes with no ants to protect the scale insects, predators and parasites impose limits on how large the scale populations can grow. But on bushes where scales enjoy protection, their numbers can reach higher levels. When the researchers excluded the ant-infested bushes from the sample, the deviation from the power law disappeared.

The protection given by the ants explains why so many coffee plants have extremely high populations of scale insects, says Perfecto, an associate professor of natural resources and environment."

Monday, 24 June 2013

Toronto Tall Ships Festival

Summer is finally here, and it came with sweltering heat. I spent most of my spare time last week finishing the last details on the retaining wall and we finally made an escape this weekend - but instead of escaping the city we headed for the thick of it. Queen's Quay in Toronto.

Our adventures began with a visit to Redpath Sugar's Toronto refinery where they have the sugar museum. I've always wondered what was in there, but never went. Since admission was free today, in we went.

I hope you like this pose, you may see it a few more times...

This is everyone in front of a giant vacuum pump (this machine sucks!) its the same pose, mirrored - and Cuppa is eating his hat.

In the museum there was this sculpture of a tall ship made entirely of sugar and sugar products. Cool beans.

Wait, whats that out side, through the trees I see masts! It must be the Tall Ships festival! I've been looking forward to this for a while, so I was glad to finally see it.

I think this shot would make a great desktop background.

At the War of 1812 booth by Parks Canada:

Snack time!

The festival was part of the War of 1812 commemoration. It included a war of 1812 stage production - the war where everyone lost, and then we all said 'Sorry' and went home. It was a fun day!

Friday, 21 June 2013

Featuring... Buddy!!

Lately our oldest boy has had a string of greatness. It started with breezing through swimming lessons a level ahead of himself. He needs 3 more checkmarks to pass, but hey, we enrolled him ahead of where he should be, so its all good!

Then there was his award in school. He was awarded a special prize for "Trying Hard" I think the teacher was trying to say he put out a lot of effort in things he finds tedious - he's ahead of the curve in math, and tends to lose interest quickly. Too bad the teach is overloaded with students and can't push Buddy to new challenges in order to hold his attention better. We had him adding and subtracting single digits before he started Junior Kindergarten, now he's bored with math :S

At the same time, he struggles with literacy. He can zip off the alphabet like its nobody's business, but he can't find words that rhyme, and he can't tell you what letter a word starts with. He hears the strongest letter in a word, and decides that that is the letter that should represent it. Maybe he was trying hard to tackle his literacy demons. I'm not sure.

Maybe we can get him into Kumon or a similar program for the summer. Anyways, here he is at the awards ceremony, in front of the whole school to get his certificate.

This week, Buddy started a new venture - Piano lessons. He has been D-R-E-A-D-I-N-G starting piano lessons ever since I suggested it to him about a month ago. I tried bribing him by pointing out there would be a ride on the city bus to get to the school. Then I tried pushing treats after class. Finally I went with public performance, and he thought the idea of a recital "concert" sounded fun. But he really didn't think he needed lessons, after all, he plays the piano in the living room just fine. (Thumping the bass keys - Oh my ears!)

Mama came home from work yesterday, loading the wailing child into the car and drove him downtown to the Whitby School of Music, where we had enrolled the boy into the PianoKids program.


Hi teacher is really nice (he told me so) and he can play middle C now, after just one lesson. He even showed me all the Cs on our piano at home. He needs to practise playing middle C this week. Its his homework.

Yay Buddy - maybe soon we will have more than "Hot Cross Buns" your repertoire!

We are hoping that the music program will backstop his mathematical pattern-making strengths, build confidence, and make sounds more relevant to help with his reading and literacy. I hope it works. For now, as long as he is interested and having fun, I'm a happy Dad.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

PlayStation reno.

The boys' backyard playhouse was looking a little tired...

So I did some renos...

 Ok, a coworker's kids had outgrown their clubhouse, so we strapped it on the roof of the thunder buggy and brought it home for reassembly. I dunno what to do about the slide encroaching on the space reserved for the walkway to the pool. I think I can let it go.

 Don't look at the wall - it's not reveal time yet.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Garden Designs

As the 'great wall' wraps up, my attention is turning to garden design. What to plant and where to plunk it. Although some of my successes have been accidents, I do try to make things work together to create textures and vignettes that are both surprising and interesting.

Before you read too far into this, you should know I have no formal training in this, its just something that's fun to do.

When most people lay out a garden, they will either start with, or only consider the plan view. To me, that is backwards. Plan view is your garden as you would see it if you were floating overhead. I don't plan on sprouting wings anytime soon, and I doubt there is even a halo waiting for me. I begin with an elevation view looking from the angle that matters most. For example, the view from the street or from a window.

When I start, I don't think about plants at all, I think about elements. At this stage there are only 4 elements to the design.

 1. Vertical - these are the spots where the garden will have a high point. High points work to draw a visitor's eye upwards, to block something unsightly, or to give the garden the appearance of being taller or narrower. They can also act as a break in a long horizontal planting or fence line.

 2. Horizontal - these are things that draw a visitor's eye along to a destination, add width or depth to the garden, or act as a border or frame to reveal something behind. For me, most designs begin as a horizontal element, then depth and height are added.

3. Frames, or Depth - once my horizontal and vertical elements are established, it becomes possible to consider foreground and background, and to create 'frames' around features or to capture views behind. An example of a frame could be a view through a cutout in a hedge or through an arbour. It could also be a single feature plant rising into low spot.

4. Surprises - my final feature are surprises or curiosities. These are the things that beg a visitor to come closer and be part of the landscape. Often I use hardscape for this, but a showy plant, or great piece of topiary has the same effect. Many visitors won't be able to relate to your plantings, but they will recall the things that made them laugh, wonder, or sit and enjoy.

 I draw my elevation view at the bottom of the page, and once its key features are in place, I will move to the top of the page to set out the plan view, which I use as my planting guide. As I work on the plan view, I revisit the elevation view to add depth, and work up the features of the plan.

So let's walk through the "Great Wall Garden Design" and maybe you will see some of these items come together.

In this portion of the great wall planting, some of the considerations I had to keep in mind were that the plants had to be relatively short, but that this would be one of the taller sections of this garden (there are three sections). I wanted a strong edge element on both ends of the garden, but I had to beware that one end will be a gazebo passageway to the pool.

Here is the first draft of the plan:

 The planting area here is 119" long, and I haven't really considered depth at all at this point. I drew in the fence rail in the background to give myself a sense of scale, but I didn't add any foreground vs background elements.

The plant choices here were based on two factors - what was on sale, and what basic shapes I needed. To be honest, I went to the nursery knowing the sizes and shapes that were going into this space, and looked for shapes, not plants.

 In case you can't read it, here is the planting list, and why these guys won out...
- Clematis 'Bees Jubilee' - an old favourite. Pink and white striped flowers. This should climb the trellis once I get it built. I may end up with a different variety, there are so many to choose from!
- Hosta 'Sum and Substance' - one of the giant hostas. Although it grows 3' - 5' tall, the branching leaves give a strong horizontal element, and its mound shape softens the straight edges of the wall.
- Iris Domestica 'Blackberry Lily' - this one is new to me, but I fell in love with its mottled flowers and unusual shape (and it was on sale as the last of its kind). It turns out this plant was recently renamed and moved from the lily family to the iris group. I am using its strong vertical lines to break the horizontal strength of the hosts and transition into lower growth geraniums.
-Geranium - pretense, halayanese, phaeum - I was fairly picky with these. I wanted three geraniums that could be planted as a mass, with different bloom periods and colours. I don't know if my selection will work or not. The geraniums at this point maintain the low, mounding shape started by the hostas, and bring some colour to the garden. If they grow to their advertised height (15" - 24") they will form a nice frame with the irises on either side.
- Iris Sibirica 'Shaker's Prayer' - these never-fail plants were shared by a great friend. They form a great whispy vertical component in the garden, and are totally carefree. I'll take a division from another bed.
- Rosa floribunda 'Sight Saver' - I needed a flowering shrub, and who doesn't love a rose? Especially a fragrant floribunda! This rose is linked to a charity which helps the blind in third world countries. It has the right shape and size for this spot, although I could have gotten something taller and bushier.

With the basic plant choices, I can go ahead and think about moving towards plan view now. I know what the structure of the garden will be, and now I can start to introduce 'trimmings'

Once I laid things out in plan view, I could see that there was still space to be filled. Adding rockcress in front of the roses will break up the wall more, and add a splash of bright blue to the foreground of the garden. Where I put in philadelphus (mock orange) I am up in the air. Philadelphus is an old friend with early, fragrant blooms, and season-long blight-free foliage, but I want more of a see-through, vertical element here. Maybe some Lilium Candidum (Madonna lilies) or allium. I dunno. By going taller in the middle, I allow myself the opportunity to put in a super-tall element behind the rose - something like delphinium maybe. This would slope down from the perimeter of the yard to the hosts at pool-viewing height. Hmmmm.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Mystery flower ID'ed - and its kindof cool.

In my last post, I put up a photo of a mystery flower. One that looked nice, but maybe was a weed. I didn't get any comments with a positive ID of the flower here, so I turned to my friends at the Delphi Gardening forum and right away I got pinged with a pile of folks identifying the flower as "Tradescantia" more commonly known as Spiderwort. Apparently the plant is pretty common but has some funky folklore and interesting properties...

Spiderwort Folklore

Spiderwort was discovered in Virginia and brought back to the United Kingdom in the middle 1600's - right around the time they were still buying and selling slaves and witch hunts were vogue. Aboriginal peoples the world over were considered uneducated heathens, and the world, although known to be round, was still thought to be inhabited by dragons and unicorns - good luck catching one.

While out hunting Gryphons or something in newly discovered Virginia, John Tradescant found Spiderwort, and took some home to Jolly Aulde Englande to share with his family and friends. The Scientific name for Spiderwort (Tradescantia Virginiana) was based on the discoverer's Last name, and the place he found it.

Medicine at the time of John's discovery was a mix of herbology, incantations, crude science and witchcraft. Yes - the same witches they were hunting back then were their doctors. Spider bites were considered to be a serious affliction. Serious enough that they just might kill you. (I guess if it was a black  widow...)

Anyways, the story goes that the milky sap of the plant, if dabbed on a spider bite would cure the bitten, and they would be fine - this based mostly on the fact that the stems of the plant are jointed and look sort of like a spider's leg, (if you hold your head just right, and the sun is out of the west). Also the sap forms long filaments similar to a spiders web.

All of this sounds good to me. Waffle fries also sort of look like spider's webs. I wonder if they work the same way. (Honey, let's go to Denny's, I got a spider bite!)

Spiderwort Herbology

I think the "heathen" and "uneducated" First Nations folks had a better handle on the medicinal properties of the plant than their cultured friends from Europe. They also had a 1,000 year hear head-start on studying the plant. According to Cherokee lore, rubbing and mashing the plant on the skin would relieve pain and itching from insect bites, and a paste made from the sap would help treat cancer, a tea of spiderwort would act as a laxative and relieve stomach cramps. Mixing with other ingredients, the plant was a component in a relief for "female ailments" and kidney trouble. Sounds like a useful plant to know about. They also used young shoots as a salad fixin' so I get it makes a nice light snack.

This info was courtesy of the USDA, in this PDF:

Tradescantia and Weird Science

Maybe the coolest trait of this plant is the weird science bit... apparently some of the 70 plus varieties of Spiderwort are hypersensitive to radiation. The normally blue-purple flowers on them have hairy stamens which are also - wait for it...- blue when the flower first blooms. However, if the plant is exposed to higher than normal (your guess is as good as mine as to what 'normal' is to a plant) the stamen cells mutate, and change colour to pink. For us this is super cool since we live between 2 nuclear power plants and always have that nagging question of what we are exposed to.

But its not all good...

With all this groovy cool stuff, you'd think that everyone would be running out to plant this stuff, but alas, it is not so. Apparently the plant is given to naturalisation and aggression in the rich, weed free environment of a household garden. It wants to take over, and that is very not cool. In fact, you could say its downright rude. But some folks are keeping it as a well behaved guest. Maybe I'll let it be for a while in the messy wild zone, and then decide whether to move it or not over time.

 To Sum it Up...

So it turns out my mystery plant is a spider-bite healing, herbal remedy respected by first nations and European folks alike, and it does some cool scientific stuff at the same time, which I just have to try out.  If it does run on me, I'll have more subjects to test (I really want to water some with tap water vs rain water and see what happens, oh and with native soil vs store bought soil. And so on.)

Not bad for a weird plant showing up in the garden!

If you are a fan of Tradescantia, or want to know more about the plant, a bulletin by the Chicago Botanic Garden goes into great detail on the nature of the plant, and offers a comparative trial of some 31 cultivars. It suggests partnering the plants with Geraniums and Hostas, in a very tight planting that allows one plant to bloom as the others fade. More on that soon...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Espalier and garden update...

Despite our best efforts to neglect it, the garden is coming along nicely. A mystery flower has sprouted in the weedy section. Maybe its a weed. Maybe its some exotic something that is on seven endangered species lists and is worth more than my car. Actually my car isn't worth much. Anyways, if you know what this is, clue me in:


 yeah, its brutally weedy back there, and maybe this is just crabgrass gone wild. I dunno. For now I'm calling it 'purple orchid extreme'

 In other news, the espalier is doing all kinds of stuff. Mostly its cool, but some is confusing. Coolness looks like this:

 I got that iris in there to make it look supercool. Anyway, see the apple tree growing up the bamboo, that's how the espalier is supposed to work. That makes me happy.

The funky-weird stuff looks like this:

 This guy has a leader coming out of the graft, and a second leader coming out of the stem. I want the  upper plant to grow, but the bottom one is stronger. I fear that cutting the lower will kill the tree. A dilemma. I need to just cut off the lower, but I'm chicken.

 Another dilemma... this tree only grew one leader. I thought that if I leaned it over, a second one would sprout at the bend. Alas, no such luck. I need to cut this back to the bottom cross in the bamboo framework and hope it sprouts 2 new leaders. I snuck in a hardy hydrangea in the foreground so it would look like we have some good stuff in the espalier garden too.

I'll close out with a success. in the photo below, you can see 2 new leaders coming out of the leafs where I have cut off the main leader on this branch. This good stuff, this what's supposed to happen!

In my next update, I talk about Aphids attacking the apple trees!
Learn more about this symbiotic relationship here!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Surely by now... (Eyeroll) ~ or Why DIY?

Every one I talk to knows about my wall project by now. Folks at the sailing club know I can't take the boat out because I am working on the wall. Folks at the office know I can't go out for drinks because of the wall. The kids know, the neighbours know, everyone knows that this wall is my everything. And the common comment is usually...

"Surely by NOW (eyeroll) you have that project finished??"

I'm not sure that I have the punctuation right, and I dunno if the stress is in the right spot but you know what I mean. This is the job that never ends. If SWMBO paid me by the hour, I could retire on the time I have into this sucker. It better not fall over. Ever.

So tonight I go to pick up another load of bricks. And if the rain breaks up long enough, I can shovel some gravel into the second walkway to the pool. I discovered on the weekend that the coping stones are too hard to cut with my little saw so I will have to rent a concrete saw to cut them with. And just like I did last week at this time, I am going to be bold and predict that by this time next week, I will have completed the wall.

I better have. I can't connect the pool until the wall is done.

Actually, I can't connect the pool until the walkway is dug out, and that's the project waiting for me after this project. Followed by the pool deck. Followed by a pool liner. I need to squeeze a fence in there someplace, and 2 arbours and maybe a patio and gazebo.

There is a 50% chance of rain today. That may push back the schedule. It seems like there is a 50% chance of rain every day.

SO you know what, the project isn't done yet, and it may.never.get.there. The backyard is going to eat me alive this summer. And that's what being a grownup means.

So why do we DIY? Why DIY a retaining wall of all things, and will this project bring me happiness in the end?

Why I DIY...
  1. I'm cheap. By DIY-ing this project I was able to save myself some money on materials, and my time is cheaper than a contractor's.
  2. I'm in control. If I DIY something and things don't turn out quite right or I decide to change the working plan, I can make changes on the fly without worrying about a contract or paying for 'extras' or what have you.
  3. I love learning. Before this project I had no idea how to split blocks or level a base course. I had never used a tamper. Now I know how to do all those things.
  4. I'm proud of my work. Its refreshing to have my coffee by the window and look out in the morning to see the wall that I built with my tools.
  5. Doing is better than watching. I could sit and watch things get built on TV, or watch a contractor, or coach my neighbours on their projects, but for me, the feel of tools in my hands, and the sounds and smells of the worksite are satisfying, even if its just cleaning up or the scrape of the shovel against the gravel. There is satisfaction in that.
  6. I want my kids to have an "I can do that" attitude. I believe that when my boys see me swinging hammers and shovelling gravel, they realise that they will have to care for their families one day too, and that this is what Dads do. It has already been pointed out to me that I build differently than Bob the builder. To me that is important. They're noticing.
I'll stop before this gets weird, but there it is. Yes, I am still working on this, and yes, I am giving up a lot of stuff to do it. But soon. (Very soon, I hope) this part of the job will be done. And then it will be time to play.

This weekend is Fiesta Week and next weekend is the Tall ships festival, so I may take a couple days off, but the project has to push on, and push on it will!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Whatzit? Itza Giveaway!

So I built a bunch of these and am now in the glue-up/sanding phase.

They are actually a pretty tricky little gizmo to build, with lots of angle cuts and a certain degree of precision needed. Without the crosscut sled I would have been at a loss!

Just one problem, I have no idea what they are, other than a nick-nak.

Anyways, give it a name, and you can have one - either in Red Oak or Poplar. I just ask that you cover shipping...

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Brick shortage forces random post...

Dinner cooking. Mmmmmm (strip loin steaks, baked potatoes, and grilled sweet potatoes).

 I was all excited to get things finished on our wall this weekend, but it turns out we are short by about 50 bricks. That's OK - I'd rather be short than have too many, and I can pick up more bricks on Monday. its not like this is an international crisis or anything.

The brick shortage does make it hard to blog though, since I'm waiting on completion before going for the big reveal. Since I can't share progress, I'll share confusion. About 2 houses ago, I got concrete moulds to make a pedestal to mount our sundial on. I did the moulding, but never got around to the rest of the project.

 Having concrete adhesive on hand, I went ahead and glued together the bits to make the sundial stand, but now I can't remember which way is up.

I need someone versed in classic architecture to tell me if this is right side up:

Or if this is:

Let me know what you think in a comment. I am leaning towards the leafs going up right now.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Nothing to see here...

The blog has been actively idle for the past few days since I'm waiting for a big reveal on the wall. But its raining, so that means no new wall work. Ugh.

Last night I worked in the garage on small projects instead and sawed into my finger with a Fortsner bit in the drill press. Merely a flesh wound, but nearly more.

Its surprisingly hard to type without using your left third digit.

I did learn a lesson though, when cutting steep angles in the saw, if you trap your work below the blade the wood will burn. If you cut above the blade, it will slice. The garage was all smoky until I figured that one out!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Brick Man Cometh

When I got home yesterday, I almost hit a skid of bricks sitting in the middle of the driveway. Then Cuppa came running to my truck and told me the brick man came in his big crane and put bricks in our driveway. Then Buddy ran over and told me there were bricks here when he got home from school. I guess that explains how the bricks got there.

Yup. Brooklin brick came through. You may remember back a while ago I went with a friend to Brooklin's yard in, well, Brooklin Ontario, and bought up a pile of seconds. Bricks that weren't perfect, and we placed them in the backyard. I haven't updated that project in about a week, but in the interim, we have finished our base course of brick, backfilled with gravel, and laid in drainage. One lunch hour last week, I returned to Brooklin and like a real customer, ordered full priced brick for the rest of the wall.

We have just gotten those bricks. When I went into the backyard, Chuck and Mama had already carted almost half the bricks back there, and laid them out ready to be set in place. In a couple hours I was able to lay almost all the bricks. Before leaving for work this morning I carted another 30 or so bricks back. We only have about 60 bricks left to move into the backyard, and I haven't gotten a picture of the delivery yet!

EDIT: I got a (bad) pic!

Our wall will be colonial buff standard split face design wall with barnboard coping. I think I'll wait for the big reveal until we get all the bricks in place and the gardens planted. Then we still won't have a lawn, but at least the framework for the landscaping will be in place. I am really pleased with how it looks so far though.

When I went into the backyard, Chuck and Mama had already carted almost half the bricks back there, and laid them out ready to be set in place. In a couple hours I was able to lay almost all the bricks. Before leaving for work this morning I carted another 30 or so bricks back.

In other news, a big surprise is waiting for the boys once all the brick is in place... Stay tuned.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Crosscut Sledding!

During our brief but frequent rain showers on the weekend, I took some time to build a crosscut sled for the table saw.

Most woodworkers have at least one crosscut sled around, and some have more. A large one for cutting big stuff, a small one for cutting - well, you probably already know - small stuff. I decided to try building a small sled first.

A crosscut sled allows you to cut stock square - right at 90° on the first try, and with greater accuracy than sliding a piece across the table of the saw. The science is pretty simple. On the bed of the saw, there are 2 slots. These slots act as a guide for the sled, and if you can find a way to hold your hunk of wood that is consistently 90° to the blade, then you have a sled that is super-fantastic. But wait - that's not all!

Knowing that he board is at 90° when held properly, you can insert shims to move the board off square to any angle you want quickly and easily - even easier than using a mitre gauge, and without having to fiddle with the mitre gauge settings every time.

The sled is actually pretty simple, with only 6 components and no moving parts. There are tonnes of crosscut sled plans on line, and a few tutorials on getting them square, but my favourite tutorial is this (incredibly boring) video that lays out the process pretty well:

Now, my sled is not as nice as his, and not as high tech either, but the five cut method was great for getting it accurate. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Lets start with making parts.

Since this is a small sled, it only takes small parts.

The work surface - 12" by 24" piece of 1/2" plywood
The runners - 2 pieces of hardwood measuring 3/4" X 12" X 1/2"
The fence and push rail - 2 pieces of hardwood measuring 2-1/2" X 24" X 1-1/4"
The guard - a piece of Plexiglas 1/4" thick by 4" wide by 12"

Start by cutting your plywood as square as possible. You can cheat and have the dude at home depot cut it on the panel saw if you want. Also, ask about pre-cut sheets of plywood at the lumber store. Mine has pieces 24" square, so I just had to cut a piece in half. Be sure your plywood is good on one side so you have a smooth surface for the top side.

Put a sheet of waxed paper on the saw, and groove it to sit down into the T-slots. Set your runners in the slots. Now put the board on top with the centre of the board aligned with the blade. It doesn't need to be exact. Push down hard so the runners bottom out in the slots.

Bring the fence over, so the end of the plywood is against the fence. This will make the plywood roughly square to the blade and slots. Now put glue on the runners, and place the top in position. Put a bunch of bricks or other heavy things on there to hold it in place while the glue dries. I also pre-drilled and set a couple screws.

Go to bed, and come back in the morning.

Attach the back push rail. This one doesn't have to be perfectly square, but of course its better if it's at least close. Now its time for the tricky part, the fence.

The fence needs to be 100% perfectly square to the blade, but this is tricky to accomplish. Here is how I did it using the 5 cut method above for measuring, and playing card shims to adjust.

  1. Set the saw to a height to just clear the plywood and cut into the sled about 4"
  2. Attach the fence using one screw in the far left corner. Measure the distance from the screw to the cut and write it down someplace.
  3. Make a small wooden block
  4. Using a square, set the fence to "as square as possible" to the cut you just made, and draw a line at the far right corner where you think the fence needs to be.
  5. Hold a playing card or two against the side of the block, and set it in place so that the cards are in line with where the fence needs to go. Screw the block in place solidly. At this point you have a floppy fence, and a solid block. The block will be your adjustment surface, and the playing cards will be your shims to adjust the fence's position.
  6. Using a C-clamp. Hold the fence in place against the block with no playing card shims. You should be out of square bythe thickness of the cards divided by two. At this point you want to be out of square, so you have a reference to build from.
  7. Make a 5-sided test cut in some scrap material like in the video above. If things are to plan, your fence will be out of square by the half the thickness of the playing card shims at the cut line. Check it by measuring with the most accurate tool you have available (Vernier callipers are awesome!) Remember to divide the error by four like the video says.
  8. Add playing card shims between the block and fence to reduce the out-of-squareness until everything is lined up. A normal playing card is about five thousandths of an inch thick. Printer paper is about three thousandths of an inch. Shim away until things are perfect.
  9. Once everything is lined up, flip the sled over and screw the fence in place using a billion screws. You really don't want it to move when you undo the clamp.
  10. Remove the clamp and block, and put on your Plexiglas guard
    Yippee! you built yourself a crosscut sled!

    Sunday, 2 June 2013

    Back-to-Back Gutter Planter

    Due to our current backyard construction, I haven't been able to plant a veggie garden this spring. Part of it is a time thing (Every spare minute is spent on our landscaping project) and part of it is a space issue (Every square inch is being re-done in our landscaping project).

    In a search for space-saving garden ideas I came a cross "Gutter Gardens" where folks are up-cycling the common rain gutter to make a garden box. Hmmm. Cheap, space efficient, easy, and most important - fast and off the ground. Me Likey!

    The designs online all have a single gutter hung by a wire or chain from a doorframe or fence or wall. In our case I have a Wal-Mart Gazebo whose canvas cover is dead. We can easily hang our gutters from that, and allow our veggies to grow up and over the frame to provide shade.

    Most of the online gutter planters that have the profile mine do are mounted on a wall or fence. This is because they need a bearing surface on the back of the gutters or they may go out of shape. I overcame that challenge by mounting the gutters back-to-back, which doubles the planting rows per level, and balances the forces acting on the gutter, allowing you to hang the wall mount gutters without a wall.

    Today we went shopping and bought:

    2 - 10ft lengths of gutter (Aluminium)............................... $20
    8 - gutter end-caps (4 left hand, and 4 right hand)...............$10
    4 - automotive upholstery clips (aka "Jesus clips")...............$ 3
    6 - screws, washers, and nuts..........Scrounged from basement
    1 - 4 foot length of cedar 2" X 4".....Free - I used scrap lumber   
    chain....................................................................$2 per foot

    Believe it or not the chain was the most expensive bit on the shopping list. I didn't need to get as much as I did. I got Fancy Brass chain rated to hold 300 pounds at $1.99 per foot. You could use rope or wire to hang the gutters if you want to save a few dollars.

    My Goal was to build this for $25, apparently that was a bit ambitious, but $35 is quite reasonable, and I would challenge you to find a planter like this commercially available a lower price per foot!

    Now that we have materials, here's how it was built...
    Using the scrap 2x4 board cut to 48", I drilled a 1/2" hole, 4" down from the top so that I could pass the chain through the board. Below that, at 12" down from the top of the board, I drilled a 1/4" hole. Finally, at 36" down from the top, I drilled a second 1/4" hole.

     With the 3 holes drilled, I moved to the table saw and cut the board into 1/2" slices. 3 slices hold up a planter.

    Now its time to build the gutters. Each planter will use two 10 foot lengths of eavestrough, and 8 end caps. Be sure you buy 4 left, and 4 right caps, or you will need to make a second trip to the store! We used aluminium gutters and caps.

    You need to cut the gutters down to 5 foot lengths. There are a number of ways to do this. Some folks use tin snips, some use hack saws or grinders. I used a carbide blade in the compound mitre saw. Whichever way you cut the gutters, be careful, you may end up with a nasty gash from the sharp metal if you aren't careful.

     Now its time to put the end caps on the gutters. I used a dab of construction adhesive on the sides, and the fit the caps in place. holding a block against the back of the cap mash the tabs down until everything fits tight. Like this:

    Now that your gutters are built, drill 1/4" holes through them for drainage, and drill 1/4" hanging holes through the backs of them. The Aluminium will allow your drill to wander, and th emetal will want to flex and bend. To get around that, put a scrap block of lumber behind the gutter before you drill through it, and us a nail as a centrepunch to dimple the metal where you want the hole to go.

    For the hanging blocks, it is important that all 4 gutters have holes at the same locations, otherwise your wood supports will hang at crazy angles. Make the 3 holes located on dead centre, and in one foot from either end. Start with 2 gutters clamped back to back to each other, with a block of wood behind each hole location. Mark the locations, and drill through both gutters at once. Now remove one gutter, and replace it with another. Using the holes already in the first gutter as markers, drill the holes again, repeat for the final gutter. Using 1/4" bolts and washers attach the gutters to the wood slats.

    Cut the chain to lengths appropriate for where you plan to hang this work of art, and everything starts to look like a planter.

    Use the 'Jesus clips' to pin the ends of the rails together. These add a surprising amount of rigidity to the planters. I put the clips on, drilled the holes, and then attached them permanently.

    Time to head outside! Hang your planter from whatever's handy by the chains. Fill with good soil, and put your plants in. We made 2 of these to replace the wall panels on our gazebo. Once the plants grow, we'll get the same shade, plus some veggies. We are trying growing cucumbers and zucchini over the gazebo to replace its roof. Our planters have:

    kitchen herbs
    green onions, garlic, and onion sets

    So hopefully we will have a decent kitchen garden this summer, in zero square feet. And we'll get shade, and we'll have use for the old gazebo frame.