Use Trex® to build low maintenance raised garden beds

Part one: Trex® and the raised garden bed

Recycled plastic and wood board

This recycled form of compressed plastic and wood handles heat, cold, wet and other weather conditions without damage.

Raised bed gardening has become popular, and rightly so. By building elevated garden beds you can avoid dealing with imperfect local soil, help protect your plants from invading pests (and even your over-enthusiastic pets), and allow you to concentrate water and plant food where it is most needed. Raised beds are helpful for the handicapped and, because they relieve much of the bending and stress of ground-level gardening, can keep the rest of us from injuring ourselves, too

One problem with building raised garden beds can be the toll that outdoor weather can take on the container materials. Wood can rot or be invaded by termites. Cedar and redwood are the two most commonly resistant woods, but they eventually break down too, and still need regular applications of oil, paint or waterproofing. Treated wood like railroad ties and possibly ‘green wood’ can potentially leach chemicals into the soil so should be used with caution, especially around edibles. Vinyl can be a good solution but may be too flimsy for most uses unless it has a hard core added. Stone is another good choice, but needs to be lined or sealed so water and soil don’t filter out. Cement blocks can work well, but they can harbor pests in the holes, add lime to the soil and may not look very attractive. One more alternative as a building material is to use Trex®

Trex® is not the least expensive of materials since it is fabricated and requires more money to produce than something that is simply ‘harvested’. But it is made from recycled wood and plastic that would otherwise be filling up our landfills. It also is highly durable so the initial expense will be recouped in the first few years by savings in labor, repair, preservation treatments and overall maintenance. It makes an excellent material to build low maintenance raised garden beds.

One historical note about the company which carries the name of its product, Trex, is that it was formed as a division of the oil giant, Mobil Corporation. Organic chemist Roger Wittenberg independently discovered that compressing shredded waste plastic with sawdust could produce a superior building material. Mobil, being the country’s biggest producer of disposable plastic products was attracted to Wittenberg’s concept and worked up the timber application which was called Timbrex, later shortened to Trex®.

Using Trex® is Eco-friendly saving non-renewable or slow-growing resources and helping to reclaim waste. For the homeowner, using it will require little maintenance since it doesn’t need to be painted – ever – and will not split, warp or rot. On the downside, it is more costly than wood, but will make up the difference over time with its lack of care. It is also heavier than wood, and it is not structural. It was formulated for walking surfaces, railings and trim rather than for supporting beams. This means that if lengths are too long on the sides of your raised garden bed and lack enough supporting posts, they may curve or bulge slightly.

Use Trex® for a long-lasting, easy care material that is safe for using in vegetable gardens and for use with children and even mouthy pets. Unlike other materials that will require painting, washing, replacement and other maintenance, once your garden is built you can focus on growing your plants rather than caring for the container.

Check out the second part of this article, Part Two: How to build a Trex® raised garden bed, for directions on constructing the elevated garden.

Raised planter ready to be filled with soil.

How to build a Trex raised garden: the posts have been cut and filled with concrete, the bottom lined and this planter is ready to be filled with planting soil.

How to Texture and Color Concrete

block wall

This cement wall has been stamped to look like stone blocks

Although there are many ways to create coatings for outdoor walking surfaces like patios, sidewalks and pool side areas, concrete is still one of the most popular paving materials. It can even be sculpted as a cover layer for vertical structures, using  stucco, or being molded into shapes like fake rocks or sculptures. Cement need not be confined to the usual smooth gray surface. There are as many ways to add color and texture as your imagination will allow. Here are just some ideas you can use to texture and color concrete and other soft mixes (like plaster) you use in  your outdoor landscape.

Color can be applied while mixing up the cement. Usually it is provided by adding powdered pigments to attain the desired color. Mixing pigment into the cement itself will provide a long-lasting color that won’t wear off. When the concrete mixture is colored throughout, textures and patterns are added after the cement is poured. For surface color effects the texturing is usually done first.

One way to add texture to concrete is by scratching or scraping the surface of moist cement before it sets up. Sweeping or dotting the surface with the tips of a broom will leave interesting lines and dots impressed on the surface. Any other material pressed into the soft surface can stamp a texture. Use tools like spatulas, combs, notched trowels or putty knives to design curves, ribbons, lines or designs of your own. Or shop the wide range of preformed textural stamps available in building supply stores or online to simulate stone, pebbles, rock, wood or other surfaces. If you have an embossed design you like you can use it as a stamp, just like children like to press their hand prints into wet cement. Any stamp you use will need to be cleaned carefully each time you use it to keep the impression clear and accurate.

Another way to create texture is to embed material that will give an interesting surface. Tumbled glass, pebbles, or just about anything that is inorganic and won’t rust, corrode or create a sharp or dangerous edge can be impressed into the surface before the cement hardens. Some of these materials can even be mixed into the concrete itself then scraped over to expose the mixed in material. Smooth, recycled glass can be effective when done this way.

You can even use  three-dimensional effects by sculpting surfaces or embedding precast forms into the concrete. Using latex molds will allow you to create your own forms to mimic art sculptures, textural patterns or realistic stone surfaces. These work well on all kinds of cement surfaces including walls, edgings and even in creating fake rocks.

Surface coloring can be added by sprinkling or rubbing in powdered pigments. You can blend colors and create your own artistic effects. Other ways to add color onto textured cement are to use acid stains or outdoor paints made for concrete.

With the wealth of colors and textures available, you can make concrete look like other materials — wood, marble or plaster — or you can turn cement into an artistic medium to paint a permanent piece of art that will withstand the assault of outdoor weather. This can make cement into a useful medium for not only the usual large areas of outdoor paving, but also for smaller decorative items like counter tops, swimming pool rocks or creative fountains and sculptures.

How to Repair Lifting Concrete Pavement

cement repair

Repairing a chunk of raised concrete

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over time roots from trees or large shrubs can lift cement on walkways making them easy to trip over and dangerous. There are a number of choices on how to repair the problem, but they all start with removing the distorted surface concrete.

For small bumps, the surface of the concrete can be ground level. Builders codes require driveways in most cities to be at least six inches thick and three to four inches deep for patios and sidewalks. This should allow you to grind down an inch or two safely with a scarifier. Call in a professional if you are not comfortable with using a (rented or purchased) machine for the job. If the cement is being lifted by roots beneath, be prepared for the ground surface to continue to lift over time as the roots beneath continue to grow. The only way to keep this from happening is to remove the underlying cause all together.

Although you can create a step up or cut around a raised tree root, the safest walkway will be smooth and level. If you do not have space to route your path around the problem, the offending root will have to be cut and removed.

If there are sufficient chunks of concrete removed, you can repurpose them for building pedestals for pots, integrating in retaining walls, or setting into the ground as pavers. The hole will need attention next.

The space can be filled with a  cement adhesive and concrete/polymer fill. Be prepared that this may chip away over time making it only a temporary patch. If a clean, even hole can be created, you can line it with rebar or wire hardware cloth and re-pour the cement to match surrounding areas.

There is another technique that is probably best given to professional specialists to handle when repairing pavement surface problems. If the surface concrete is intact and you don’t want to break it, you can remove the subsurface cause from the side and float the concrete back into position. This is accomplished by drilling holes in which cement is pumped to fill the hole beneath. The pressure of the added liquid beneath will float the existing slab back up to the surface. Floating concrete pavement is a better solution for areas where the pavement has sunk rather than lifted.

These are just some suggestions on how to repair lifting concrete pavement on walkways, patios, driveways or other flat surfaces.

How to Install a Drip Irrigation System

Drip irrigation

Emitters, connectors and sprinkler heads for drip systems

Weird weather has abounded all over the country and it may continue to do so. With uncertain weather why not make your garden as water-efficient as possible? Consider adding a drip irrigation system.  It will save you money, be good for the ecology and it can even be fun to put together a drip irrigation system. Plus, if you do it right you will help your plants thrive.

Drip systems have been around for years. They make excellent companions to low-volume sprinkler heads, soaker hoses and weather-based irrigation controllers for getting the biggest bang out of your buck in landscape water consumption.  The down side is that hard water can clog dripper heads with minerals and rabbits can chew through tubing like licorice sticks. Regular inspections are necessary to make sure a drip system remains efficient and in good condition. The good news is that repair is simple and inexpensive.

Drip systems can even be fun to put together. The basic concept is to put together all the little parts of your drip irrigation network – rather like assembling a Lego set – to create an efficient delivery of water to the root area of each plant exactly where it is needed. No water is wasted elsewhere. You can even add a timer on your system so it will turn on and off without you having to remember.

Start off by sketching out the area where you want to build your drip system. Make an ‘X’ at each point where there is a plant you want to water. Then simply connect the dots with the least number of lines possible to design an efficient layout. The main lines should be constructed of ½ inch vinyl tubing off of which you can run smaller, ¼ inch tubing.  You can bend your tubing or use ell or tee connectors for sharp bends or for splitting lines. You can also choose to set drippers in-line so water will drip all along the tubing or you can create branches with drippers or mini-sprinkler heads plugged into the ends at the base of each plant. There are different styles of water delivery heads like drippers and sprinklers. You can plug in which ever one will be best for the plant you are watering. In other words, you can use a variety of different little delivery systems on the same line.

Other options are laser drilled tubing with tiny holes precut, tubing with drip emitters already built into the line, or soaker hoses. Soaker hoses, usually made of recycled rubber, ‘sweat’ water slowly into the soil. The latter are useful with larger growing plants like shrubs and trees that are deep-rooted. You let them drip water over a matter of hours so water can seep deep down into the soil without washing away. There are even subsurface systems that contain little backflows before each emitter so soil does not clog the opening. These systems are buried just below the surface of the ground making them invisible and less appealing to the rabbits. You do need to be careful not to break them, however, when digging or weeding since the hidden soft tubing will be easily cut with the thin edge of an energetically wielded garden tool.

The most efficient landscape systems are made up of a variety of different water delivery systems. Most trees and woody shrubs grow strongest with the slow, deep and not-too-frequent watering of mushroom bubblers, moats or watering tubes. Most vegetable gardens need regular water that penetrates but also moistens the ground surface, a job that can be accomplished with an arrangement of sprinklers, soaker hoses and drip lines.

Cabbage head

This red cabbage grew well with a drip network.

Ground cover plantings and lawns usually grow best with low-volume sprinklers that deliver even, leaf-washing, gentle water. Drought-tolerant plants, cacti and many succulents need the soil surface to drain quickly and can benefit by drip systems. You can adapt different systems to many purposes or combine systems in a single area. Success will be a matter of giving the right plant the right amount of water delivered to the whole root system.

Have fun putting together your own irrigation design for your vegetable garden, your flower garden or even to thread between potted plants. It’s a project that will not only save water, but can be fun for getting the whole family involved.

Container strawberry

A drip line is buried under the straw in this strawberry container. (See lower right corner.)