Coffee heat rising

A$k and Re¢eive, Revisited

If you ever need a reminder to get bids for every…single…project of any kind, here’s a tale with that a moral to it:

Richard the Landscaper proposed to remove the dying ash in front for for $1,000, down from the original $1,500 he thought the market would bear. When I asked if he would please also remove the moribund plantings around the tree’s base, cover the stump with a mound of dirt, spread some more gravel there and arrange the existing rocks decoratively, and then plant one of the baby vitex trees I’ve cultivated in pots, he added $200 to his bid. So, as I’m facing unemployment I’m looking at a total of $1,200 to take down the tree and repair the landscaping.


I called the Desert Botanical Garden, which has a master gardener training program, and asked if they could refer any of their graduates. Forthwith came in the e-mail a list of a dozen certified arborists. So I called one—let’s call him Mike the Arborist. He just came by to view the jungle that is my yard and give me some estimates on the large amounts of pruning that need doing.

He said he would take out the dead ash tree for $500!!!!!

More ordinary tree trimming comes in the vicinity of $40 to $100, depending on the complexity and size of the job.

Covered with sharp thorns the size of tiger claws
Sharp thorns the size of tiger claws...trimmed back from the sidewalk less than a month ago!

For $225, he’ll also remove the ferocious palo brea on the south side, which has become a dangerous menace—passersby risk facial scratches and eye-gouges if they have the temerity to use the sidewalk in front of my house. For about $40 apiece, he’ll trim up the two trees the palo brea is crushing to help them fill out properly. For a few dollars more, he’ll trim the olive inside the front courtyard, restoring it to its former graceful splendor. With the job in the front yard, he’ll clean up the desert willow and restore the passageway between it and the Texas ebony free of charge.

In the back yard, he proposed some judicious trimming of the exuberant emerald paloverde—not enough to infringe on its shade-giving properties but a little pruning to keep it off the roof and discourage crossed limbs. And though he disapproved of  Satan‘s westside weeping acacia (yes—he and Proserpine actually planted two devil-pod trees in back, one where it would drop plaster-staining junk into the pool and the other where its limbs could snap off and fall on the house—or on the neighbor’s house), he recommended against removing it and suggested simply cleaning up the lower limbs, which are dying off  because they’re not getting enough light.

So, instantly the guy drove away, Richard got a call canceling the job he had yet to do. I think he’d forgotten about it, to tell the truth. Thank goodness! It looks to me like I can get ALL the pruning and tree removal—take out the dead ash and the nuisance palo brea, prune the palo verde, the olive, the vitex, the desert willow, and one of the hideous willow acacias in back, plus build the mound and move the stones onto it—for not a helluva lot more than Richard proposed for the ash and the mound (all told, R. wanted $1,200 for those jobs).

Wow! I was braced for an $800 to $1,000 bid just to do the basic trimming, to say nothing of removing the palo brea. Can you imagine?

Asked him what his background is and how he came to start a business. He said he and his wife had moved back to the US from Germany, where they’d started their family (she’s German), because they wanted more space and Arizona was where they could afford it. He started working for a large landscaping firm that was doing all the maintenance for the huge new developments out on the west and east sides. There he learned how to climb and prune trees, ended up as a manager, and started studying landscaping seriously. He became a certified arborist, and then after the economic collapse he and a partner bought an existing landscaping company that had about 35 accounts. He said their plan is to target small to medium-sized developments that are too small for the huge landscape maintenance firms to bother with. So…it sounds like he knows what he’s doing and he has some experience. He’s very clean-cut, well-spoken, and even though he’s a gringo he doesn’t look like an escaped convict.

My yard is desperately overgrown. It not only needs to have a huge, mature (dead!) ash tree removed, it needs serious work that verges on relandscaping. Some of that work really should be done by an expert. Unless I miss my guess, this single call to just one other contractor is going to save about $1,000 on the total job.

Landscaping job wraps up

Richard’s men are almost done with the big landscaping job at the downtown house. We’d hired his company, Dick’s Landscaping, to xeriscape both the front and back yards, huge plots of land compared to modern tract lots.

They’ve ripped out a decrepit walkway, built a front courtyard and new brick walkway, installed an automatic watering system (front and back), laid three brick patios, planted eight trees and a bunch of ornamental grasses and shrubs, laid weed fabric over the bermudagrass-infested ground, and spread 75 tons of quarter-minus crushed granite. And the place is looking a lot better!

Here’s a “before” view of the backyard:

For a good view, click on the images

And an after:

We’re looking at a lemon tree, a lime tree, a Texas ebony, deer grass, a Mexican bird of paradise. Both the Lisbon lemon and the Mexican lime will get to be good-sized trees. Texas ebony is slow-growing, but over time it develops into a very handsome xeric tree. Not much we can do about the overhead wires, which actually are over the alley, other than consider them quaint characteristics of a character-filled antique bungalow.

Work in progress in front:

Men working, in front

And here’s the result:

The little tree is a multi-trunked desert willow, which grows to a medium height and bears lovely deep purple flowers for  many months during the late winter and spring. In a year or two, it should shade the front window and, with the mature carob tree just to its west, cool and shade the new courtyard.

More to come: We just had Richard’s crew do the heavy lifting for us. After the worst of the heat passes, M’hijito will plant more ornamentals and set various potted plants around the yard. And in back, we’ll lay flagstone stepping stones to build a pathway from the covered patio to the new sitting area in back.

The 1,450 bricks that came from the estate sale sufficed to build most of the three patios, and we still have a few left. Amazing buy!

Our project inspired the down-at-the-heels neighbor across the street to do a little keeping-up-with-the-jonesing: he snagged our workmen and hired them to lay a wide driveway in his front yard. Maybe some of the rolling stock will get moved off the lawn!

Beloved Yard Dude Gone

Gerardo the Yard Dude Extraordinaire has disappeared from the scene. He’s not answering phone calls, and that’s not like him. So La Maya (another of his clients) and I are worried something’s happened to him.

Of late, he’s had a hard time getting good workers, partly because many migrants are staying in Mexico for lack of work here, and partly because the rabid Sheriff Joe’s publicity racist anti-undocumented worker campaign has resulted in so much harassment for Latinos that people who jump through all the immigration hoops to enter the country go to friendlier locales. Gerardo himself is very smart and very good at what he does. But some of the characters he’s hired lately have been annoying. He does a lot of the work himself, and so he’s not riding herd on these guys—and they’re guys who need to be watched every minute. The result is not always ideal.

Meanwhile, speaking of rabid, the dratted palm trees around the pool have gone into a reproductive frenzy. Why people plant palms around swimming pools (or anywhere, for that matter) beats me. They’re one of the messiest trees around. They grow out of the top, sprouting a new topknot of fronds each spring. The previous year’s growth then dies, creating an ideal nest for cockroaches. At the same time, the plant springs a crop of long flowering wands, which drop millions of tiny, crisply sharp blossoms all over the ground and into the pool. The things are too small to be caught by most pump pot and skimmer baskets, and so they get sucked into your pump. Not good. Worse: the fertilized flowers produce BB-sized seeds. These rock-hard little fellows also drop into the pool, where the pool cleaner picks them up and chokes on them, resulting in a nice repair bill.

So, once a year you have to get a guy to come round and trim the palm trees, at rates ranging from $25 to $45 apiece. Some people have them taken out, but in a yard like mine, where the pool is built within a couple feet of the wall, removing the stumps would pose quite a challenge. Besides, in such a confined area there’s not much else you can plant that will cast even a modicum of shade.

Gerardo was doing the job for $25, very cheap. So I cringed at the thought of having to track down someone else to do the palms and, BTW, the monthly yard work.

At this time of year, dozens of itinerant workers roam the neighborhoods looking for palm tree work. They litter your front door with cards. So I picked one whose name I vaguely remembered from last year: Joel G.

I’m impressed:

1. He’s Mexican. Several amazing experiences have left me strongly preferring Mexican over Anglo landscape workers.

2. He showed up promptly to provide an estimate. He must live nearby, because he was here 15 minutes after I called.

3. He looks substantial and honest. OK, I know you can’t tell a book by its (etc.), but gut instinct goes a long way toward assessing character. He’s clean-cut, neatly dressed, and has a frank, straightforward manner. At first inspection, I’m guessing this is probably a decent man.

4. His English is excellent. That helps a lot, because my Spanish leaves a lot to be desired. Like…oh, say, Spanish.

5. He charges a reasonable price, only $5 a tree more than Gerardo.

6. He also advertises a number of other skills, the very skills M’hijito and I have need of: he can install watering systems and lay gravel. If his price is right there, too, we may hire him to do the landscaping at the downtown house.

And he’s hired. We’ll see how good a job he does on the palms. If that works out, maybe we can get him going on the two houses, and that would be a great help in our lives.

I hope Gerardo is OK. Palm tree work is very dangerous—every year men are injured or killed wrestling with these nasty plants. Worse even than falling off an 80-foot-high stem is getting trapped under one of the heavy fronds: if you can’t get out quickly, you suffocate. It’s such a gruesome way to die that just about every incident hits the newspapers, and so if anything like that had happened to him, La Maya would have picked up on it, since she still gets the Arizona Republic. But other injuries and car wrecks are so commonplace no one even notices. We’re both assuming he’s met with some accident…but who knows? Maybe he took a salaried job.

Image by Ginobovara, Wikipedia Commons

DIY splendor!

One of Funny’s Ten Money Principles is “do it yourself.” Great piles of cash are to be saved (and spent) by following this principle. If you’re at all handy or crafty, improvements to your house, yard, and vehicles are waiting for you.

This weekend I visited the home of some friends who deserve the nomination for All-Time Great Do-It-Yourselfers. Fred is a firefighter, and Kathy works for the Great Desert University. A few years ago, not long before the real estate bubble began its final expansion, they built their dream house on an acre of land under the White Tank Mountains, a natural preserve on the far west side of the Valley. The basic structure of the house was built by the developer, a man they had met through their daughter’s sport, but Fred wired the place for sound, and working together Fred and Kathy installed a handsome stone façade in front. Then they started on the huge backyard.

Still a work in progress, it’s beginning to shape up as a lovely park-like retreat. Fred has made a hobby of metal-working; when they built the house, he specified a separate, fire-resistant workshop, which you can see in some of the photos here. At the outset, they laid two large patios, one of paving bricks and one of flagstone. The flagstone surface was the only landscaping project for which they needed professional help. Otherwise, Fred and Kathy designed and installed the entire hardscape, the structures, and the plantings.

dcp_2467This shade structure was built of scrap metal. The entire thing consists of recycled materials. It casts a cooling, airy shadow close to the house’s covered patio, where, Kathy says, the two of them like to sip wine in the evenings and dream up new projects. Beneath it, they built (themselves!) a complete outdoor kitchen with propane-powered gear and a stone countertop. Taken together with the house’s built-in overhang, the flagstone patio, and the great room that opens into the backyard, the whole arrangement makes an awesome entertainment area. 

(Click on the photos for larger views.)

But that’s just the beginning. In addition to the barbecue kitchen, they also designed and built a fantastic propane fireplace, complete with a Santa Fe-style wall and bancos. In this view, a protective covering is set in place over the firebox. The other evening, though, SDXB and I had the privilege of joining our hosts in front of this lovely hearth, where we watched the sun set over the mountains and the moon and stars come to vibrant life. That’s a young elm tree behind the structure. The flowering trees are Desert Museum hybrid paloverdes, an exceptionally beautiful xeric tree that, once established, provides great shade and hardly ever has to be watered.

dcp_2473Their latest development is an elaborate garden structure. Fred also built the framework in his workshop, although this time the metal was, I believe, not recycled. Here are Kathy and VickyC about to enter through the gated arch—the fencing discourages coyotes and can be equipped with a dog- and rabbit-repelling barrier. A couple of weeks ago, Kathy planted a pair of Lady Banks climbing roses, one on either side of the archway. It will take a year or two, but in due course these plants will cover the arch with flowering vines. The skeletal “roof” of the structure is designed to accommodate shade and frost fabric, which will protect tomatoes in the scorching Arizona summer and frost-sensitive plants during the chilly winter nights. 

They already have a healthy garden of tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, herbs, and the like:


The amount of work Fred and Kathy have done themselves represents savings in the tens of thousands of dollars. I can’t imagine what it would cost to have even one of those weather-resistant, termite-resistant metal structures built. An outdoor kitchen? I’ve never asked, because I can’t afford it. Outdoor fireplace? Doesn’t compute.

Kathy says that, except for the metalwork and the flagstone installation, most of the projects were not difficult to build. I think, though, that success with these projects requires meticulous care, knowledge of building codes, and understanding of how to design block and metal structures that will withstand the test of time. Clearly it’s not impossible to acquire these skills. The result is pretty amazing.