Front Porch

The Shape of the Porch to Come

by Celia Hayes

All righty, then – last week to Lowe’s for two bags of mortar mix and an inexpensive bricklayer’s trowel, so that we could complete two segments of the porch project. For reasons known only to the original developer, the basic plan of my house (and a handful of other small garden cottages in Spring Creek Forest) were built with the front door actually about half-way along one side of a long narrow house – with a kind of square divot indented into the side. A third of a divot was made into a small, covered front porch and the rest just left open. Most people chose to make it into a flower bed, although the whole thing in concrete would have made a generous porch with wide steps going down to the walk.

The original owner planted a photinia in it, which eventually quite overwhelmed the raised flower bed that I made of that space and turning the room behind it into a cave. Finally I had the tree guys take the whole thing out, cutting the stump back to ground level. My daughter and I re-vamped the raised flower bed a couple of weekends ago, laying most of the bricks in a bed of leveled sand – but those along the edge needed to be mortared together, for stable footing, and three courses needed also to be made into a low wall to surround a smaller raised bed.

So, we split the effort; my daughter did the edge, and I began on the low wall. This is one of those things which looks so easy when the professionals do it, but it is possible to do it yourself with satisfactory results … although it will be a bit messy at first, and likely every professional bricklayer in town will be rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably at your efforts. Spraying down the bricks first with water will make the mortar stick to where it should, and a certain degree of obsession-compulsion when it comes to keeping things in a regular, tidy, symmetrical pattern will come in handy. So will a level and a mallet; the first to ensure that the bricks are indeed level, and the mallet for whamming them into place. Sprinkle with water, spread with mortar, wham the next brick into place, scrape off the excess mortar … and repeat as needed, several hundred times. Let set, sweep away the excess sand and crumbs of mortar, and there you are.

We plan to fill the raised bed with a mixture of sand, compost and garden soil, topped with gravel to keep the rainwater falling from the roof edge from splashing dirt onto the side of the house. Since it faces south and is a very sheltered space, we’ll plant it with sun-loving, flowering plants like lantana, salvia and Russian sage. There’s a concrete bird-bath to go in the middle of it – just about where the stump of the photinia will – we hope – peacefully will rot away. I also have a number of low, rectangular terracotta planters that will fit nicely at the foot of the raised bed – that’s where the mixed lettuces and salad greens will grow, as soon as it is warm enough to set out seeds. And that’s the plan – next weekend should see it all complete.

Grocery Coupons and Saving Money

Eye on the Bottom Line

by Celia Hayes

An eye on the bottom line of the receipts at the grocery store, of course. I’ve been through a good few years of this, after being well-trained by my mother and grandmothers. All of them were disposed to pinch pennies until Lincoln begged for mercy, although they took slightly different ways to go about it. Grandma Dodie did coupons and sales; when she and Grandpa finally sold their house and moved into a retirement community, there was a stash of canned goods in the garage which would have fed a family for a couple of years. Grannie Jessie, the country girl, kept chickens, did a lot of preserves and pickles, and saved Green Stamps to purchase certain useful appliances, furniture and luxury goods. My mother eschewed coupons, chickens, Green Stamps and the preserving kettle; she preferred a membership in a food coop, which offered bargains on meats, fruits, grains and vegetables, and making almost everything – even granola – from scratch. It was her opinion, which I found to be a pretty well-grounded one, that unless you used the coupon for something which you would have bought anyway, it was a waste of money and effort. We did wind up eating some very strange things from the coop, though. I recall beef hearts, and rabbit, and other odd cuts of meat.

I saved on the grocery bill myself by patronizing the street markets when living overseas; once a week, the farmers and vendors in Greece would set up tables in a two-block length of street and sell produce straight off the farm. In Spain there was a central farmer’s market downtown, in an ornate cast-iron and stone Art Nouveau style building – and besides that, there was always the military commissary. By the time I settled down in Texas, though, the commissaries were less and less of a bargain, and my default money-saving strategy was based on a Sam’s Club membership and purchasing certain stapes in bulk … and in hitting the reduced-for-quick-sale racks at the HEB. All this, let it be clear, usually meant stocks of canned goods, paper towels, oils, beans and grains, sugar and flour. Until lately, coupons on offer were for prepared foods – which, as my mother trained me well – we avoided, mostly.

Curiously, in recent months, it seems like HEB has been producing specialty coupons at the check-stand for us, based on some mysterious algorithm which reflects what we have actually bought. Suddenly, we have a number of coupons offering discounts, or even free items; milk, eggs, salad greens, and pet food. And you can bet that we have made full use of them. The last two times we hit our local HEB, the eventual bill after the coupons were tallied up and deducted was reduced by nearly a third of what it had been at the start through using them. Considering how the price of many grocery items has been creeping up – or the actual package size of the items has been creeping down while the price remained the same – this is a very good thing. I won’t be holding my breath for it to last for long, but we’ll be making the best of it while it does.

2014 In With the New

Out With The Old, In With the New

by Celia Hayes

The New Year, that is. Bye-bye to 2013, hello to 2014; this an exception to the saying about preferring a known evil to the one you know nothing of, but then it’s not like we have a choice. Here we go, on a rocket-launch into the unknown, willy-nilly – without any guidance save being certain to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

I looked back at certain resolutions that I made at the end of 2012 – sell the relatively useless (to me) property I owned in California and buy a piece of Texas paradise, finish my next book and sell a great quantity of copies of all my books at year-end events, to switch over from a national bank to a Texas establishment for all my banking needs, pay off a major creditor, ditch cable television and switch over to a Roku box with internet video amusements for an evening, and to have an extensive vegetable garden in my back yard. Yea, verily – I wanted to have enough vegetables and greens for all our dining needs for a good part of the year, and that is one of the things that I still want to happen. I did accomplish just about all the other items, though – selling the California property, paying off the credit union, switching to Frost Bank, ditching cable TV, and the book – The Quivera Trail – was finished on time, too. Alas, I did not have quite as much in sales at various events as previous experience led me to expect; it seems that everyone was counting the pennies this year. Not that I mind, as I was counting them myself.

And there were some unexpected things which happened this last year as well; the transmission of my daughter’s car needed a rebuild, the sale of the property allowed us to afford a totally rebuild of the HVAC system in the house, one of the cats died (of old age – dear old Sammy!) but we acquired another, a kitten who promises to be as large, friendly and eccentric as Sammy … and another dog, a dump-ee in the neighborhood. This one is mostly terrier and thinks he is a cat, being nimble, insanely intelligent and totally fearless. We call him Nemo because … we found him. We also found a mountain bike – abandoned in the creek-bed which runs through the neighborhood. No one has claimed it yet, so I can see that biking the various trails along the San Antonio creek greenways is in our future.

The garden simply has to happen – that is a given. Raised beds, edible stuff grown in various patches, the folding plastic greenhouse made complete use of … and the dog poop cleared out on a more regular basis. In a few days, I will call the tree guy who works our neighborhood to come and sort out the magnificent mulberry which shades the back yard – which was butchered almost to the point of dying, first by the local utility crew clearing away errant branches from the power-lines, and then a couple of years of serious drought. It recovered, but this winter it simply has to be shaped properly into a dense and compact lollipop of a shade tree. And the pair of weed shrubs which planted themselves and grew into small saplings have to go – as well as the red-leaved photina which the first owner of my house planted too darned close to the house. That will give scope to re-doing the front entryway; those are my plans for the 2014. What are yours?