GIMME SHELTER- Gimme Ten: The 2008 Gimme Shelter Top Ten
Every year, dozens of trades people and professional experts in their field, including gardeners, contractors, plumbers, real estate agents, electricians, vets, landscapers, and exterminators, donate their brain power to bring you valuable how-to advise in the Hook's Gimme Shelter column (Okay, so they get a little free publicity, too).
Anyway, this year we've decided to honor a few of the more outstanding "Gimmes" by selecting 10 stand outs. And believe us, it wasn't easy, considering there we more than 40 excellent ones to choose from.
And congratulations to our Top Ten experts!
1) Eat your yard: A juicy primer on edible landscaping
Published September 25, 2008
Q: I've heard a little bit about "edible landscaping" but would like to know more. What exactly is it? And how would I get started creating edible landscaping around my home?
A: Edible landscaping puts an emphasis on "less care" plants and trees that supply fresh fruit of some kind of food value. It also goes along with the green home idea, as there is a self-sufficient and healthy living aspect to it.
Most people relate to the fruits they find in grocery stores– apples, plums, pears, oranges– but those plants are typically hard to grow, and people who buy them might not necessarily be aware of what they're getting into. After a few years, many people start getting cynical about having to maintain such plants, given the fact that they don't produce anything similar to what's found in stores.
Edible landscaping takes all the thousands of plant species and narrows it down to those that are less challenging, even not challenging at all, but that produce a tasty fruit. For example, pomegranate, paw paw, hearty kiwi, persimmons, and figs are all fruits that can be easily grown around your home. In addition, the arrangement won't look much different than regular landscaping, as you have to look pretty close to see the fruit on most of these plants.
Ideally, if you're thinking about edible landscaping, you should start with native plants– as they already thrive here– and ones you don't have to spray or cultivate, such as American persimmon, juneberry, or pecan. These native plants don't need alot, as long as there's no competition from grass. On the other hand, if you decide you want native blueberries or raspberries, you may have to add peat moss to the soil or plant them closer to your foundation, as they don't grow in red clay.
Remarkably, many people are not familiar with all the edible native plants we have. For instance, we were at a festival recently and were handing out paw paws– even though it's a native fruit, nine out of 10 people said they had never tasted one. Many people are also not familiar with wineberries.
Of course, there are also some misconceptions about which berries are toxic. Recently, I noticed there were juneberries on a bush in front of the Burger King at Barracks Road. I happened to see a kid walk by and try to eat one. His mother pulled him away, saying "Don't eat those. They're poisonous!" But juneberries were one of the fruits that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition survived on, as they were used in many Native American recipes. Still, there are some berries to watch out for, such as pokeberry, poison ivy berries, and black nightshade berries to name a few.
If you decide to get more ambitious about edible landscaping, there are dozens of food producing plants to choose from, including strawberry, plum, apricot, apples, cherries, oranges, pears, lemons, currants, even coffee and hops, to name a few. It all depends on how edible you want your landscaping to be and how much work you want to put into it.
2)Wood you? How to install a wood stove
Published November 6, 2008
Q: I don't have a fireplace, but I'd like to save on my heating bill this winter by installing a wood stove. How difficult would it be to install one? Any tips on what kind I should get?
A: Believe it or not, installing a wood stove system in your house is fairly simple. In fact, you don't even have to have a brick masonry chimney to have a wood stove– it can be placed almost anywhere.
If you do have an existing fireplace, there are free standing stoves that can be easily connected to your flu, as well as fireplace/stove hybrids that fit right into the fireplace opening. Depending on the size you choose, wood stoves can heat anywhere between 600 square feet and 3,000 square feet of space. While some people might want a larger stove to heat the entire house, others might want a smaller stove to keep a few rooms warm and keep their heat pump from kicking on.
In choosing a stove, there are several things to consider. Heat quality depends on the quality of the stove. Cast iron and soapstone stoves are the best, but you can also choose a cast iron/soap stone combination. Cast iron stove/fireplace hybrids, which fit right into your existing fireplace, are also an option. Cast iron holds heat better than steel, and can withstand higher temperatures. Soapstone takes longer to heat up than cast iron, but will stay hot longer. Soapstone also produces a "soft heat," which means you can get a a bigger stove without worrying about over-heating the room. With a cast iron stove, if you get one that's too big, it can make the room too hot.
There are also a number of "designer" stoves now available, in combinations of cast-iron, soapstone, and steel, that not only heat your home or offset your heating bills, but add to the aesthetic beauty of your rooms.
All new stoves have what are called "re-burning systems" that are now required by the EPA. These are a set of tubes inside the stove that "reburn" the gases and creosote produced by burning. These stoves are noticeably more efficient, reducing the wood to a fine ash, producing more heat for longer periods, and minimizing the smoke that comes out the chimney. In addition, the glass on the stove won't get black with creosote.
After you choose a stove and decide where you want to put it, you can choose the best chimney system. The simplest way is to set the stove against an outside wall, run a stainless steel, double-insulated pipe outside and up the side of the house, and build a wooden chase around it. However, you can also place the stove in the center of the room and run a pipe straight through the ceiling to the roof, or put the stove in the basement, or even in an upstairs room with a steep roof pitch.
Ideally, you want the chimney pipe to be as straight as possible to get a good draw. To avoid back-draw, the pipe should also extend at least two feet past the highest point where it passes through the roof, and at least two feet higher than any part of the house within 10 feet.
If you have an existing fireplace, you can simply install a direct-connect kit, which comes with an oval pipe that fits through the flu, and metal paneling that seals off the area around the pipe. If you go this route, make sure you measure the fireplace opening before you choose a stove so you have the correct clearance, as stoves vent at different heights.
Editor's note: this is a "Best of Gimme Shelter" re-print.
3)Short sights: Can you make money in foreclosures?
Published November 20, 2008
Q: I hear a lot about the increase in foreclosures, both nationally and locally, but I'm confused by all the terminology and the processes involved. For example, what is a pre-foreclosure or a short sale?
A: I've been reading and hearing a lot lately about foreclosures, pre-foreclosures, short sales, and everything in between in our market. It's a complicated issue, and many realtors and even real estate attorneys are still climbing the learning curve...some more successfully than others.
I've also seen and heard on local talk radio members of the general public discussing the issue, and a tremendous amount of confusion exists there as well. The process is convoluted, often excruciatingly slow, and often leads nowhere, at least from a potential buyer's point of view.
The television and internet advertising boasting huge profits and "buy a house for $300" doesn't help either, of course. I've had some success putting together short sales for my clients and my own portfolio, even more in pre-foreclosure situations, and very little at the foreclosure auction stage. Here's what those terms mean to me, and why I think things have worked out as they have.
Pre-foreclosure: A property still owned by the seller, but in a situation where payments are in arrears. If some equity still exists in the property (the difference between what is owed and what a buyer is willing to pay), this can be a good deal for all concerned.
Short Sale: A property that does not have enough equity to pay off existing obligation(s) and thereby deliver clear title. This is a case where the buyer, seller, and the existing lender(s) must all agree to a sales price, even if it does not fully satisfy the lender(s). Difficult, but not impossible to bring to a successful settlement.
Foreclosure: This is the auction process by which the primary lender attempts to obtain clear title to the property by wiping out secondary liens and obligations or accepts a bid that pays all or part of what it is owed.
Buying/bidding in: Here is the most misunderstood part of it all. Often, the lender will instruct a trustee to make a bid on its behalf that is near the amount it is owed, in hopes that someone will bid higher so they will be made whole. Or the lender hopes that once it has clear title, it can take back the property and resell to mitigate the loss. (Seems a little short-sighted to me if it bears little or no relation to fair market value, but it's clearly their right.)
Some have alleged that banks profit using this tactic, but I can't think of a single example locally in which a bank actually made money this way.
For one thing, any excess after paying off the debt and the cost of the sale would belong to the former owner. Another factor is that there are accounting and even some IRS issues that go along with such conveyances, and the lender rarely comes out ahead.
The bottom line is that the lender– who isn't the bad guy– very rarely is interested in owning the property and would be delighted just to break even.
4) Holy smoke! How to prevent chimney fires
Published March 13, 2008
Q: I have an older house that we heat with a wood stove, and I'm worried about a fire starting in the chimney. How can I prevent my house from going up in smoke, and what should I do if I suspect a fire has already started in the chimney?
A: One time I had a guy try to clean his own chimney, and he used a bigger brush than he needed. When I got there, I couldn't get it out. He eventually managed to get the brush out, but he ended up having to re-line the chimney.
We've all heard people describe the scary experience of having a chimney fire. Chimney maintenance should be taken very seriously, and is generally best left to trained professionals.
"It was roaring like a freight train," many say. In fact, a chimney fire does sound like a freight train and is a pretty scary occurrence.
Yearly inspections, regular maintenance, and frequent cleanings can help prevent a fire, but if you do hear a sound like a train barreling up the chimney, the best thing to do is call the local fire department and try to extinguish the fire in the fireplace or wood stove immediately.
There's always a chance of burning your house down if you don't clean your chimney regularly. Buildup in the pipe or on flue tile inside the chimney can ignite down in the firebox and quickly spread up the chimney.
Most of the fires I hear about happen when people bank up their stoves at night and put in more wood than they should because they want hot coals to be there in the morning. The creosote– resin from the green wood– swells up like a marshmallow and closes up the throat of the flue.
Besides regular cleaning and inspections, there are also several preventive measures. One important step is to keep water out of the chimney. People can waterproof the chimney with a seal made of sand and clay that they spread on the chimney crown. The coating lasts from 10-15 years and is flexible so it shrinks and swells with cold weather. You could also put a cap over the top of the chimney to keep the water from washing the joints out inside the chimney.
Even though chimney inspections and cleanings have gotten more expensive in recent years due to increased fuel prices– chimney maintenance people aren't so willing to come for gratis estimates any more– I would still highly recommend them. The safety of your home is worth the cost of the maintenance.
5) Chi change: Feng Shui is the way
Published March 27, 2008
Q: What exactly is Feng Shui and how can I use it in my house? Can Feng Shui help me find love and make me rich?
A:About five years ago, when I was trying to sell my house down in Atlanta in a fierce market, I decided to stage the house using Feng Shui and was able to sell the house in less than a week. The buyer was driving by and saw the sign, walked into the house, and decided on the spot he liked it enough to buy it.
Feng Shui is a design-oriented discipline that describes the ways our lives are affected by our environment, and how we can positively impact our lives by making changes in our living and work spaces. The primary premise of Feng Shui is that we are surrounded by energy, or chi, which constantly moves through our environment and affects our well-being. In a balanced environment, chi neither moves too quickly, which can make us feel frenzied or over-energized, nor too slowly, which can make us feel depressed or leave us with low energy.
Wood, fire, metal, water, and earth are the five elements you need to balance in your home as a part of practicing Feng Shui, and I have found that achieving a balance of these elements can really help. People tend to have one element that is stronger for them. Pack-rats, for example, tend to have a lot of earth elements in their homes. One of my clients with a lot of earth elements was able to let go of things more easily (and decrease her clutter) when we added more wood elements. Wood is also the element of growth, and she also noticed that her business grew!
Is there a room in your house that makes you feel happy and energized? Spaces with positive Feng Shui aspects can make us more productive at work and encourage us to stay at a party enjoying the company of our friends. By analyzing the furnishings, colors, and dimensions of a room, you can discover why it might make you feel up or down.
Placement of the bed, for example, is extremely important, and clients who have changed their bed location based on my suggestions have told me they are sleeping better. Your bed should have a solid wall behind it, and you should be able to see the door from your bed but not be directly in front of it.
The key aspects of Feng Shui include the flow of chi, the interplay of Yin and Yang, and the balance of the five elements. The Yin/Yang symbol represents the balance of opposites, and all your furnishings should have this balance- tall and short, light and dark, hard and soft, etc. An easy way to achieve a balance of the five elements is to pattern your spaces after the natural environment. Trees, sun, rocks, water, and earth can be translated into wood furniture, lighting sources, metal accents, mirrors (which reflect like water), and earth-tone colors or earthenware pieces.
But what about making your first million because your dresser was in the right place? You can use Feng Shui to support various life goals such as career, fame, and prosperity. The Bagua is a map used in Feng Shui to determine where to place items to activate your life energy and remind you of your intentions. For example, place a symbol of prosperity on the back left corner of your desk to remind yourself of the goals you have in that area.
6) Stinky dog? Buy him some Arfmani!
Published May 1, 2008
Q: What can I do about my stinky dog? I give him a bath regularly, but a few days later he stinks again. When guests come to our house their hands stink after petting Rover. Help!
A: Keeping dogs clean can be a challenge. We had a dog here recently that took a direct hit from a skunk. After we washed him using Skunk Off (the best product we've ever seen for eliminating skunk oder, and it can be used on people, too), the owner took him home. But the first thing the dog did was find that skunk again. He was back the next day.
Another customer of ours has a pair of West Highland White Terriers, who are white as snow after they've been washed. Unfortunately, the first thing they do when they get home is stop, drop, and roll in Virginia's famous red clay.
Of course, even when your dog isn't rolling around in a cow pasture, tracking a skunk, or finding a dead animal, he can still stink. And when it comes to stinky dogs, it's not how often you bathe them (dogs should be bathed about once a month, as bathing too often can cause skin problems), but how you bathe them and what you use.
We use a very thick 15-1 dog shampoo with an additive called orange oil that seeps down into the fur (you can order both products from places like Pet Edge and Davis Veterinarian Supply). For a thorough clean, it's important to rub deep into the undercoat, especially if your dog has thick fur. We also use high-pressure blow dryers, as they help push out the undercoat and make your dog easier to groom.
Regular grooming to remove any winter undercoat or excess fur is another way to eliminate doggie odor.
If this doesn't work, you can also buy– believe it or not– designer dog cologne or deodorant at your local pet supply store, with names like Arfmani, Tommy Holedigger, and Miss Claybone. Just spray your dog's chest and back after he's been washed, and he/she should remain fragrant for several days.
Of course, if your dog continues to stink, check with your vet to find out if Fido has an infection or some other medical issue that might be causing the problem.
7) Clutter buster: Focus on the little things
Published January 31, 2008
Q: After the holiday madness, I find myself with a messy house, lots of presents to find room for, and a New Year's resolution to "get organized." At the end of the day, I'm overwhelmed by the clutter and too tired to do anything about it. What are some simple ways to reduce clutter and organize my house, particularly after the holidays?
A: Today most of us have more things than we really need and a limited amount of time to care for them, a feeling that's only exacerbated during the holiday season. A good approach is to make room for the things you love and let go of the things you don't.
Take Christmas presents, for example. Did you receive anything that's a newer, spiffier version of something you already have, like a great new blender? You may be tempted to keep the old model "just in case," but in reality if something happens to your new blender, you aren't very likely to bring that old one out of storage. Heck, you might even decide it's easier to buy another blender than to try to remember where you stashed the old one. The best thing to do do is give older models and toys away to charity or friends.
Another common gift issue we all face is unwanted presents that just don't suit us. Maybe your aunt sent you a wool sweater two sizes too big, or you got a big bag of peanuts and have a nut allergy. Rather than hiding those presents in the back of the closet, go ahead and stick them in the donation bag along with the blender.
In fact, I recommend that everyone keep a donate box or bag ready to receive all those things in life that you no longer love or just never worked as promised. Each week, do a sweep and look for just five things to give away. After a month or so, you'll be surprised at how much clutter you've removed from your house!
Instead of thinking of "getting organized" as a huge project that you have to tackle in a weekend, think of being organized as the sum of all the little things you do to make life easier. You can probably think of several tasks you do around the house that already work really well; maybe you have a great system for handling mail or doing the laundry. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, just pick the next area that you want to improve on, and work on that. It may take several weeks for a new system to snap into place, but once it does, you've added "being organized" to your repertoire.
8) Pets gone green: Environmental ways to care for critters
Published February 7, 2008
Q: I feel like we've made a real effort to care for the environment around our home, but I worry about all the waste our pets produce. What are some ways to go "green" with our pet care?
A: In order to care for your pets in a green way, two of the most important things you can do are to ensure you are recycling everything possible and to look for environmentally friendly products.
The easiest thing to do to decrease the waste your pets produce is to make sure you're recycling all pet food cans and bags. Another thing you can recycle is all the dog or cat hair you get from brushing your pets. Rather than throw the excess hair out, you can put it outside for birds to use in their nests.
Cat litter is also recyclable and usually environmentally friendly as well. Sand or clay-based litter can be composted or used to fill a hole in your yard, and both are good for the environment.
Picking up after your dogs can also help reduce contamination, and using recycled plastic bags cuts down on waste. Even pill vials that you receive from your vet can be recycled!
If you bathe your pets frequently, be sure to look at the labels and be sure to buy environmentally friendly shampoos. Medicated shampoos, however, are not good for the environment and cannot be so due to the nature of the product.
Flea and tick treatments are generally safe for the environment, with the exception of outdated flea dips. Dips leave lots of harmful runoff and are also bad for your pets. Any approach to parasite control must be multi-modal as fleas are becoming more resistant to products. Topical products used by vets are safe because of the amount of product applied and the minimal runoff produced. Newer oral parasite controls are also environmentally friendly, and collars for tick control are fairly safe for the environment.
In general, most products you use on your pets really are not all that harmful to the environment. Looking for green products and recycling most of the waste your pet produces can help minimize the impact.
9) Houseplant CPR: Water, sun, and kill the bugs
Published April 3, 2008
Q: I can't keep a houseplant healthy to save my life. What should I do to prevent future massacres of these potted beauties?
A: If you suspect an indoor plant is dying and you see some spots on the leaves, it might be a good idea to get out your magnifying glass. If you notice what looks like speckling on the top side of the leaf, turn the leaf over and you might find that the sucking mouth parts of tiny spider mites are piercing all the way through the leaf! Spider mites are a very common pest for houseplants and one that many people aren't aware of because they're hard to see with the human eye.
Believe it or not, insects are a big problem for indoor plants. Without rain to wash them away or predators to devour them, many parasites have a veritable climate-controlled feast awaiting them inside your house.
Mealy bugs are another common indoor bug to watch out for, but unlike spider mites, they're highly visible. If you see white or light-brown cottony masses in the crotches of the plant that keep building up and getting larger, chances are you have mealy bugs. Fortunately, these mounds of bugs are easy to wipe out without harming the plant. A little alcohol on a Q-tip rubbed into the cottony masses will dry them right up. Be warned, though– the mealy bugs will probably return, because the larvae are very hard to kill off.
To prevent such unwanted scenarios, it's best to take your plants outside on pleasant days and hose them down to simulate rain. About twice a year, I actually spray my plants with Fantastic cleaner, leave it on for two minutes, and then hose them down with good pressure. Nowadays, they make organic sprays that act as a preventive for both insects and disease.
While plant maintenance usually depends on the size and type of plant, there are some general guidelines to follow when it comes to ensuring your plant has ample access to essentials like sun and water. I generally water my plants about once a week, but give a pretty good watering when I do. Certain plants, however, require much more or much less water. African violets, for example, should be watered two or three times a week. Additionally, I like to fertilize my plants about once every seven to ten waterings.
Be conscientious about where you place plants– try to avoid bright sunlight or gusts of air. As summer approaches, the sunlight is going to intensify, so anything right by a window will take the sun even harder. Certain plants are very touchy to drafts from open windows or forced-air heating. If you notice a plant dropping leaves it may very well be in a drafty spot.
Finally, always ask the people you buy the plant from how they recommend you care for it. They should be able to give you detailed advice on everything from whether it's a shade-loving or full-sun plant to whether it needs to be watered once a month or twice a week.
10) Retro green: Making a '70s gem energy savvy
Published May 8, 2008
Q: I'm thinking of buying one of those simple, "modern," open-floor-plan houses built in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, it was built when gas was 50¢/gallon, and it's about as energy efficient as a chicken coop– big single-pane windows, high ceilings with no attic space, thin layers of old fiberglass insulation. Is there a way I can upgrade the house to make it more energy efficient without completely breaking the bank?
A: Installing new weather stripping on your windows and doors is an inexpensive first step, but if you really want to make the house more energy efficient, you'll have to accept some financial sacrifice. There are a lot of variables to work with, so it's important first to know how much you have to spend. To reduce costs, it's best to avoid any extensive renovations.
Where you can get to your existing insulation– crawl spaces, attics, etc.– you'll want to replace the fiberglass insulation with some kind of spray foam insulation. Back in the '70s, people with little or no training usually installed the fiberglass insulation, and given that builders and home buyers weren't as concerned with energy efficiency back then, there wasn't the same attention to detail. Unfortunately, if you have fiberglass insulation in your walls, you're going to be stuck with that unless you opt to tear them out. Recently we put spray foam insulation in the attic and crawl spaces of an older house, and it made a dramatic difference in terms of energy efficiency.
Windows are a huge point of heat and cooling loss, so investing in storm windows is a good idea. You'll also want to replace those big single-pane windows with double-insulated glass. This can be expensive, but you get what you pay for, as the energy loss from single-pane windows is also huge.
If you don't have an attic, you might want to think about stripping the roof, putting down foam board, and then re-roofing. That's not cheap either, and design-wise it can be difficult not to make your house look like it's wearing a bad sombrero, as it raises the roof about three inches. But there's a lot of energy lost through a poorly insulated roof.
If you haven't blown your budget, you may also want to look at the mechanical systems. Is your duct work properly insulated? Are the connections tight? A poorly designed duct system can waste a lot of energy.
Finally, with high ceilings, you need to be able to mange air flow in the house, either by installing fans or calling in a pro to analyze how air flows. Air flow is important when it comes to using energy efficiently.