The Great Ladybug Release

Having beneficial insects in your yard cuts down on the pesticides needed, and it can be fun for the children.

One of my goals is to  avoid introducing organic or inorganic chemicals into the yard. The reason for my decision is twofold: finding a way of cutting a cost; and making the garden safe for my children to enjoy. Cutting cost is not really a big priority for me, since I already spend a bit on my garden, but I think that I benefit from the knowledge of finding ways to reduce expenses to be able to pass that advice along to my clients. As for my children’s enjoyment, I feel that children love to be outside more when they have a space where they are engaged. The releasing of the ladybugs became a big event for my children (and for the parents too), and this may kindle the desire to explore your own yard in your own children.
ladybug release
    Sometimes I forget that my children are lucky to have the home that they do. To encourage his daughter to be outside, a neighbor of mine drove his family to the beach. I have nothing against going to the beach, but his daughter could be outside on a regular basis if they let her loose in her own garden. Later that same day, my niece was shocked when she saw my daughter pick something off of a plant to eat. She immediately reported this infringement to me, whereupon I explained that she had picked a piece of broccoli for a snack. My niece could not recognize the broccoli on the plant. We sat down in front of that section of the garden, and I explained which plants were edible. Even later that day, that same niece was walking with us in The Village. She could not pass a certain spot. A bee was in the flowers. My daughters rushed to see the bee, while I placed myself between the bee and my niece, so she could pass. My niece feared that my daughters would be hurt. I explained that bees will leave you alone, if you leave them alone. Children benefit from this connection to nature. I think that their knowledge improves, and that they remain calmer.
    The great event for the children was the ladybug release. You will find packages of ladybugs in your garden centers. I think most are selling for around $10 You are supposed to release them at night, but I found this hard to do when having the little ones involved. We decided upon early evening. The garden had been watered earlier. The first step for us was a row cover. This is not always suggested on the package instructions, but it does help keep ladybugs in place until they settle in. Since we were not releasing at night , the row cover became more needed. We opened the container, and placed it under the cover. The girls squealed with excitement as they watched the beetles go along the top of the cover. They even caught a few who had escaped.. Most of your ladybugs will not stay in place. The big hope is that they find food, and they lay eggs, so you will start having your own ladybug colony.
    Since the great release, I find both daughters in that garden bed, conducting ladybug hunts. In fact, I am having a hard time getting them out of that bed. Each day they find one or two that they can show to others, and then they put them back. Katya was happy to catch her first lizard. The smile on her face was wonderful. Sakura had to hold the lizard, which she brought into the house to show her mother. This led to the “beast” escaping into the house, but they managed to chase it out of the door.
    Should you expect great things from one ladybug release? Maybe not. We will be releasing more in different areas around the yard. Once the beetles have established themselves, and we see the arrival of their offspring, I am sure that we will reap the benefits. So is this cheaper than using chemicals? Like many sustainable practices, the start-up cost is higher, but the long term cost is less. I do want to explain my objection to organic pesticides here. My personal belief is that the best chemical should be used for the job. If those chemicals pose a risk, whether organic or inorganic, then you need to weigh the consequences. Knowing that my daughters are always snacking from the garden, I choose not to use any chemical pesticides. If I could convince my daughters to bring their snacks inside to be washed first, I probably would use an organic pesticide. I do not think this will happen, so I stay away from anything which might have an effect. For this reason, I also stay away from certain plants. Oleander and foxglove are wonderful plants, but I do not want their toxins being fed to my daughters (or for my daughters to feed them to the dog, which they often do with their harvests).

Harvesting Beets

Houston’s winter has allowed me to grow many vegetables, but I do love fresh beets.

I came home Sunday afternoon to two excited little girls and a son who was happy that he was not babysitting anymore. The girls and I went out into the garden to harvest vegetables for lunch. We made a tuna salad that included cilantro, celery, kohlrabi, broccoli, carrot, and onion from the beds. This inspired the girls that our lunch should be a picnic. We made a quick soda bread, and then prepared our vegetables. All the children and I went to have our meal in the front yard. Katya decided upon a summer dress (it is a picnic Papa), although it was a bit cool. With so many flowers in bloom, they began to collect them for an arrangement, and to spill petals over my head. This is when we happened upon the glorious beets.
    Do you eat beets? I know people who will not cook with them, but I grew up eating this root. Sometimes I wonder if my children will not want certain vegetables. I think the method of causing real interest in trying a vegetable is allowing them to harvest it from their own garden. We are having fun at our picnic, and I began to consider what we may harvest for dinner.  I spotted the beets, and decided upon roasted root vegetables. How do you know they are ready? I was asked this question by a neighbor. Actually, with many root vegetables this can be a confusion. Some of my beets had lush leaves on top, but the roots were thin. If you look carefully, you will see the bulge at the base of the leaves. I was harvesting beets with at least an inch in diameter, or that was my intention- the girls became a little to excited. When you look at the top, you can begin to see how thick the roots are starting to become.
    This is where the fun really began. The girls wanted to begin cleaning the beets outside by pulling off the thin taper root. They discovered what can be a bother to some cooks: the red juice which can stain. I joked that they could use this as make-up, particularly lipstick. This became quite the game. The younger daughter realized that this could also look like blood. Quickly the girls had my hands covered with beet juice, and I acted out my overly dramatic death from bleeding too much. By the time dinner was served, they were looking forward to their beets.
    Another item to harvest at this time in Houston is a good compliment to the roasted root vegetables: dill seed. The girls were not too excited after tasting the seed directly from the head. However, collecting the seed to spread over the roasting pan worked. I took an onion, potato, and yam for my roasting as well. A drizzle of olive oil and rice vinegar helped things along. I placed these in a hot oven (425F) for a half hour. This was a hit.
    I recently heard a gardener say that growing plants from seed is a waste of time. That may be true in general, but not for many vegetables. I broadcaster my beets over a new bed to obtain my plants. I did not have much problems getting them to grow. The leaves could be attacked by snails and other pests, but I did not have a bad year. I do like to harvest the leaves by themselves, before harvesting the plant. The stems have the same red juice, so you can still have staining. I sauteed the leaves like I would spinach. The roots can have a sweetness to them (sugar is produced from a beet variety), but the leaves do have a stronger taste, which does not appeal to all. I would suggest that you try growing your own beets for a little harvesting fun.

Meditation Garden

We are spending more time in our homes. Maybe we should create garden spaces that enrich us. A meditation garden was my wife’s wish.

Most homes that I inspect do not have a great deal in the garden areas. Plain yards fill my day with possibly a garden table in the grass. The garden space in my yard has quickly filled up, yet my wife had a request for a meditation garden based upon a church garden she and my girls had seen. After I began working on this garden, I noticed a neighbor doing something similar in a front courtyard. I considered their garden along with a few other recent examples in my own area, and I felt that these relaxation or meditation spaces are being created by homeowners who are turning towards their own home, since they may not be spending as much time away from the house. Entertainment spaces in the yard have been common to one degree or another, but we may be seeing other garden spaces evolve, reflecting our needs.
Meditation garden
    My meditation garden is based upon a space around a Catholic Church. My roots are Protestant, while the wife and children are Catholic. They wanted an alcove for the Virgin Mary, where they could pray. I wanted a quiet place to sit and reflect. When creating our garden, I thought that there are lessons for others planning their own special place. What you see in the photograph above is the beginning of the garden. As you can see, this is a small space that was fitted into the only free spot in my yard. This area was the path to the side garden. On one side, I already had a bed of lilies. The path was moved closer to this bed. An existing bamboo became part of the screen of this green. A large stone was moved to be a bench. To complete the screen, I purchased two trellises. These seem to always come in basic black. If you notice, I took a silver paint for the finials. This makes the trellises different. Adding a little personal touch to an off the shelf item makes the garden special.
stone crossVirgin home
    The basic form of the garden is the shape of a cross. To achieve this cross, my girls and I used flat stones collected from my parents’ home in the Hill Country. We are not quite done with this project, but we have the shape. To create the alcove/house for the Virgin of Guadalupe, I went through my storage shed. I found wood for the frame as well as decorative trim pieces. I also discovered left over paint. My point here is that you may have the material to make an artistic piece, so you do not have to go out to buy something. The alcove frame is a vegetable crate. The roof and sides were made from old fence boards.  The vase for holy water was a gift.
    I enjoy sitting on the large stone, and my girls go to say hello to the Virgin. To complete the space I needed plants. Since I began this project in late autumn, I found many plants on sale. I purchased two Knockout roses to go in front of the trellis. This bush has consistent flowers for me. In between the flat stones of the cross, I moved a thyme plant from another part of the garden. This makes for a nice fragrance. I did add some other plants, but I forgot about my dog. Curious about the new space, and wanting to put his own stamp on this garden, the dog rolled over the plants and stones. Instead of visually interesting smaller annuals, I should look into a bush that has some lasting blooms.
    You do not need to spend huge amounts to create a relaxing space. One of my favorite spaces is a chair, a table with a pot. This is near my children’s play area. I can relax to read a book, and they can play. A meditation garden is a good place to have when spending more time at home.

How to Create Simple Vertical Gardens

Using space wisely helps us to make the most of our homes and gardens. Small spaces require you to think about planting vertically. As my yard becomes ever crowded, I focused on simple concepts for vertical gardens.

I heard someone say that gardeners will fill up every available space, and that they will create vertical gardens when the horizontal space has been used. I guess that I am at that point. Although I have not been writing, I have been working in the garden. I wanted to experiment with the idea of verticality in the garden space. Vertical gardens fall into different categories: climbing plants; beds in long containers raised above the ground; and the garden wall. I have been playing with all of these concepts, so I wished to share my experiments with you.

Raised container beds

bottle flat planting containerPVC pipe plantingraised containers
I have seen some beautifully constructed wood structures that can be best described as a cross between shelving and raised beds. Along those same lines, I have seen elaborate PVC pipe systems which are angled to allow water flow down gentle slopes to the bottom. Holes in the pipe contain plants. Simpler still are plant stands and trees of hanging baskets. Since I had many goods which could be recycled, my focus was to find ways of using these materials. Leftover pipe from my drainage project became beds by cutting long openings in the top. I did not imitate that structures that I had seen, since I did not have that much pipe. Two poles were drilled through the pipe. A metal tube became the main supports. Smaller PVC tubes spaced the longer tubes to the right heights. Then two wood braces tie this structure to the fence. This was all recycled material. With cuttings from my crepe myrtle and old plastic bottled drink flats, I made a few starter flats. The flats are so high that the obtain sun longer than the bed did below. In this case, the four crepe myrtle trunks were used to create a shelf frame. The drink flats were attached to the cross members of the frame. A piece of plastic that came from a sliding door blind helped cover the holes of the flats. A foot board from a bed became the basis for another raised container bed.  This was a metal tube four poster bed. The spaces between tubes had plastic garden pots place in them. I am now growing strawberries, cucumbers (which I hope will spill over), and brussel sprouts. I also used old lamp shades as containers that were placed on a pole.

Climbing plants

Trellises, poles, and fences all serve for climbing plants. I am growing my grape vines on poles which go up around fifteen feet. The grapes will be pruned to cascade from the top of the pole, creating a grape vine fountain. When many gardeners discuss vertical gardens, climbing plants is their focus. Cucumbers, squashes on vines, beans, and grapes are a few standards for this type of vertical gardening. Some of these plants have wonderful flowers, so a trellis on a porch can make a great screen while providing a harvest.

The plant wall

vertical wall garden
Have you seen the work of Patrick Blanc? His work in vertically landscaping might be the best known, and many gardeners are finding ways to imitate what he has done for their own vertical projects. These are walls of plants that have a fascinating artistic feel. These gardens rely upon running water which supplies the nutrients. My version is a bit different from other projects you will find around the internet. First, I am not using running water with a trough. I had the spring section of a mattress. Mattresses are the hardest item to recycle, and I wanted to find something to do with it. The spring frame is held vertical with poles driven through the center. I filled the springs with leaves and compost. Here comes the only item that I purchased for these projects: window screen material. After the spring frame had been filled, I covered the frame with the window screen material. This holds in the leaves and compost, but it does allow water to flow into the structure. I cut slits into the screen. I then had to use a wire cutter to remove a bit of the frame. Finally a plant was placed into the hole. Currently I am growing lettuce, mustard, oregano, and mint in this vertical method. The Black Seeded Simpson lettuce is doing well. Oregano likes dry places, so it is fine.  The mint is also good. I water by spraying the structure with the hose. Oh, I also have broccoli growing on the side.  I am hoping that this wall will block the heat from the sun, while giving me a larger growing surfaces.

I am happy with the results. I want to focus on the garden wall concept. Maybe I can use a solar powered pump to create a vertical garden wall like the others have done. My dry vertical wall has not needed anymore watering than the other containers.  What can you recycle for a vertical garden? Whatever your imagination allows.

How to Make Peasant’s Caviar

Or should I say how to make pickled ginger and pickled galangal, or how to make a mushroom stock for a stew? This is the story of a garden and pantry adventure which lead to the making of three items instead of one.

Did you start off making one dish only to find that another evolves from the remnants of your efforts? My connection with the restaurant industry has been brief, but I always remembered that you do not let something go to waste. This adventure begins with my daughter, Katya, and I harvesting the galangal. This is the spicier cousin of ginger. We had quite a bit of work digging out them out, preparing the bed for the next year, and replanting some tubers for the next year’s harvest. We were left with about ten pounds of roots. I love using pickled ginger as a condiment, so I thought that the galangal may work well too. In the preparation for the pickling, I ended up making a soup stock and a version of my favorite bread spread, peasant’s caviar.
    After cleaning the tubers, I began the preparation to make pickled galangal. The process is the same for ginger. The galangal tuber does have thicker side roots that need to be snipped off. Peeling the skin is the same as peeling ginger. Use a spoon to scrape the skin off. Since I am working with several pounds at once, I place the cleaned pieces into a water bath. Once all has been cleaned, I thinly slice the galangal, placing these slices into fresh water. I have placed ginger slices directly into the prepared vinegar solution, but I thought of using an older recipe that I had. I do not taste much difference in the final product though. In the direct method, I let the ginger sit in the vinegar for a week before using he slices. In the second method (the one I decided to try today), the ginger (galangal) soaks in water over night. The next morning I clean the scum that forms on the top of the water. This is the white foam on top of the water. I pour the water through a strainer into a pot. This is the beginning of the stock. The galangal goes into a glass jar. The usual practice is to take rice vinegar,red miso, and honey for the pickling. You want the vinegar to have a sweet taste. These are boiled together, and poured over the ginger. Let this cool before placing the jar into the refrigerator. Do you have to use honey? I find that sugar gives me the same taste, but I like using a local. Do you have to use rice vinegar? Probably not. Vinegars do have their own flavors, and this will be imparted to the pickle, but I have always used the rice vinegar. I found quite a bit of red wine vinegar in the pantry, so I did use it this time. Why the red miso? I do not always use the red miso or any miso. The red color comes from tuber reacting with the vinegar. The red miso adds a certain flavor element. I have used a light brown miso. I have gone without miso. For this preparation, I added a little sea salt. I have used herbs or spices from the garden, but I enjoy the cleaner taste of little added. After a day, the ginger or galangal has a nice flavor. You may be thinking sushi for its use, but I like using this condiment on any meal where I would use other condiments.
    Making vegetarian stocks is a simple process. I do like making chicken stock, and every so often I may may beef stock. Stocks are great for soups and sauces, or you could braise items in stock, so having stock on hand is a great way to speed the meal preparation along. Wen in my pantry, I found a package of dried mushrooms. Mushrooms make a great darker soup stock. I went back into the garden to harvest some parsley and onions. I had about a cup of dried mushrooms, a cup of chopped parsley, and a quarter of a cup of chopped green onions. I let the ingredients simmer in the galangal water for forty minutes.  I wanted a lightly flavored stock that could be used for a number of dishes. More onions would help make a better stock for soups. I could have harvested some celery or carrots too. This stock was good for a vegetable stew that I was making that evening. I did add a little salt to the stock at the end. I completed the stock preparation by straining the stock into a storage container.
    Finally, I had the ingredients for a type of peasant’s caviar. I do not see people making these spreads much anymore. Eggplant is the common main ingredient used for this dish. I think if people like baba ganoush that they may like peasant’s caviar; however, maybe people stay away from the spread because of the eggplant. I have had other versions of this caviar, and I think the mushroom based version is great. I took the ingredients from the strained stock into a blender. The mushrooms came out to be two cups when reconstituted. I used a quarter cup of olive oil and two teaspoons of a dark soy sauce. This was blended together. I added a little salt and pepper to taste. I have added a little garlic to this blend as well in the past. There are different types of caviar that are quite inexpensive, and vegetable spreads may not sound to appealing, so maybe that is why peasant’s caviar fell out of favor, but I love this spread. If you do want to try the eggplant version, roast the eggplant first. I always add the garlic to the eggplant version, where this flavor is optional for me when using mushrooms. I may add a bit more onion. Sauteed onion goes well in this spread. As for herbs and spices, parsley is the standard for me, but I could have used any herb or spice. Tarragon would be good, as would thyme. I guess that I will use those next week.
   I still have more galangal. Maybe I should candy some? Maybe grate it into a paste to store in the freezer. We will see. I hope that you try the peasant’s caviar. I find that some people have problems with mushrooms in a meal, but they enjoy this spread. As you can see, harvesting one item can cause you to have more work in the kitchen, but that is not a bad thing.

The Garden at the End of the Year

A garden is always moving forward in unexpected ways, but looking back helps us to understand the way forward.

Do you look back at what worked and what failed for you? I review my year, maybe because I am going paperwork and creating end of year reports. I have not really done this with my garden though. I remember what worked, what did not, and I have ideas for the future. I am considering the drought and its effects on my garden this last summer, so I want to think about how I should proceed in a better way. I am viewing my failures, since we can learn so much more from them than a success.
    My biggest failure was the design for the spinnable compost bin. My design worked well with a small amount of kitchen waste, but when I loaded the bin with yard waste, the bin collapsed. I came up with a plan to repair the bin, but I went in a different direction. The problem is space. I had a good deal of wood, so I made this compost/recycling/work center behind my shed. The spinnable bin worked well for kitchen waste, but I wanted a larger compost production method, which for me meant the standing bin. The space where the spinnable bin was located could be used for planting.
    Giving more of my yard over to garden beds was a good decision for me. I have mentioned the trend away from lawns, and we each have to discover what is best for our lifestyles. I know that some people lament the loss of the American lawn, but I did not want to be a grass farmer. I am going to slightly extend the current layouts of garden bed to lawn, yet I feel that I have achieved a good balance. The children have play areas, and many of the plants did better than the grass.
    Another failure of sorts was planning out plantings. For the most part this did work out; however, I should consider plants that do well in droughts, or when I plant. I began focusing more on sowing seeds, which is more economical. Established plants going into the garden have done better, so next year I want to do better with starting seeds in flats, then moving them into the garden.

    I also had mixed results with my vertical garden. Again, the problem is starting plants from seeds. During the hot summer months, the seeds sprouted, but the plants had a hard time. Even though our autumn was warm with little rain and water restrictions still in place, the nasturtium started from seed enjoyed my vertical garden. I want to try more vertical gardens next year.
    Did I actually save money by growing my own vegetables? I think that I broke even. The drought caused me to water more, which was an expense, and as I said, I wasted money on plantings that failed due to a lack of watering. I did obtain most of my vegetables from my own garden. My method of gardening has allowed plants to return from seeds. Each winter I find cilantro popping up. Each spring brings spinach. My winter vegetables are producing food again. To be more successful, I have to plan out ways to save on water while producing vegetables.
    Reviewing my problem areas gives me ideas for the coming year. I really should sit down in January to create a plan. Part of this plan has to include preserving produce. I prefer to eat seasonally, but traditionally in Texas, the later months of summer are not good for vegetable production, and preserving vegetables was how families fed themselves.

The Compost Path: Using Leaves for an Easy Compost

Do you have too many leaves to handle? Composting does not need to take place in a bin, leaving the leaves on the ground will allow them to decompose. Here is a method for people with limited space.

The forest floor is a lush place, which is achieved through composting, the natural way. The trees drop their leaves. Rain waters the leaves. Animals step on them to help in the breaking down process. Insects and earthworms take from the leaves to further the decomposition. For the next growing season, the tree has a ready source of nutrients. We sweep our leaves away to keep the maintained look of our homes. Well, most of us do. I use leaves as a mulch in a few of my garden beds that are not in the obvious line of sight of my visitors, yet with so many leaves, I had to find other locations, which was not always with my wife’s approval. I had an idea last fall where I could use the leaves as a mulch path along the side of the house. I was not sure how this would work; however I am reaping the rewards of this compost for my late fall garden.
    The experiment was simple:  lay the leaves that I collected onto a path as a mulch. My wife was dubious. The leaves by themselves were not too attractive, and there was quite a pile. To improve the appearance, I applied a layer of wood chip mulch. My wife approved of this look. The path was a bit springy/soft for the first few weeks. This is a well traveled path, and it is located through garden beds where I frequently work. During the course of the year, I did not add to the path. I had to weed a few times. By summer, this was a well worn path.
    The result of this easy compost was revealed over the past few weeks. I needed mulch/compost for a new garden bed, so I began to dig up the path. Leaves were beginning to fall from the trees, so I knew that I would have a replacement path covering. I found a rich compost mixture below. This was compacted material though. I broke the mixture apart, and now it is in the garden beds. The wood chips are still present, but I find that I will find large wood chips i compost bags that I buy from garden centers. I could sift the compost for a finer material, but I felt that this would be great as a top layer in a garden bed.
    I have a shredder for chopping up the leaves and other prunings; however, I have been not been using this device. I could use this to make the wood chip mulch for the path, but I admit to buying cedar mulch for my path. Cedar repels unwanted pests, which is desired near these beds. The path is a little more than three feet wide and about twenty-five feet long. I am taking a little material out at a time, to be replaced with leaves as they fall. I am relying on my other composting systems for a finer grade of compost. No one realized that they were walking on the compost, and I water this ground when working on the beds. I did not add manure, but otherwise this method mimicked the natural composting method.
    I was happy with the result of this experiment, and I want to see how I will fare next year. The benefit for me this year has been that I have a good deal of material for new garden beds, which I have been casually doing these last few months. I see neighbors who have ripped out their lawns in favor of simple beds. My vegetables have been quite attractive, and many a passer-by has not been able to separate vegetable from ornamental. I am sure to report on this experiment next year.

Harvesting Ginger

Some plants need that first bite of cold weather to produce the flavors we love. My ginger told me the time was right to harvest in Houston.

I love gardens with some character. I have performed a few new construction home inspections recently, and I am always impressed at how quickly the bare yard is transformed into a garden. My only problem is that these scenes have been standardized, and I realize that I should not expect something else. In between inspecting two new homes, I concentrated on my meditation garden. This is the space that my wife and girls want based upon a little garden by a church. I moved the current landscape out of the way to begin making the path in a shape of a cross. The children and I began working on making decorations for a tree in the front yard that we want to look like a Christmas tree. With all of this going back and forth through the gardens, I noticed that the ginger was receding. The few Houston cold snaps had convinced my ginger to go dormant, which means that harvesting was in order.
Houston ginger
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Keep Gardening Houston: Joys of Winter Vegetables

The drought brought an end to many Houston gardeners, but with freezing and near freezing temperatures arriving, what little gardening activity we had seems to have come to a stop.

Each morning I pass my antique roses on the way to the car. Katya wants some cut flowers to give to her teachers. Sakura wants to stop to enjoy the fragrance. I am reminded that there are many plants which give us a bounty of colors in late fall through winter. I planted geraniums yesterday. Violets were planted the day before yesterday. A few chrysanthemums still are putting on their show. I have bought pansies as well. I have been sitting in the garden, watching the children play. However, I noticed tat a few neighbors who began to improve their gardens with the cooler weather have now stopped, due to the freezes. This is a great time to garden in Houston, and we have a chance for winter vegetables.
Houston Winter vegetables Read the rest of this entry »

Dead Trees and the Threat to Our Homes

The drought is not done, but we may be dealing with the effects sooner that you realize. Large dead trees threaten our homes.

He looks across to his neighbors yard, and asks me if that tree is dead. This was a smaller tree about twenty feet tall. Leaves were a tan/brown. All the leaves were that color, and they were all on the tree. Yes, it was dead. That guy does not take care of his yard, was the response. True, but I have noticed this with more homes. I was at a short sale home doing an inspection, noticing that many bushes were dead. A dead bush or a smaller dead tree may not be a threat to the home, but they are a cost. New owners will have to replant or at least take these dead specimens from the yard. Where I begin to worry is the much larger trees.
dead pine tree
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This site came out of my desire to write about my love of gardening, but also to connect it to my knowledge derived from home inspections. That is why I tied it to the home inspection site.If you have questions, you can email them to me (frank at For home inspections, call 713.781.6090.
Happy gardening, Frank


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