Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Landscaping - the Wild West in NZ

Any new home needs landscaping. You need to cover the ground to avoid weeds, mud and dust. The other reason is the covenants imposed by developers. Having paid a lot of money for a designer to transfer my drawing to their computer software, as required by the developer, to progress my house plans to the Council, I have been surprised by what happened throughout the projects.

Most residents in NZ who build a home have no interest in gardening. They seem to think a garden is a line of grisilina along the fence line and some box hedging up the front path.There is no interest in diversity, the balance of insects, feeding themselves with fresh food and no effort at being sustainable.

Not everyone has gardening as a hobby, of course, but I am dismayed that natural beauty and sustainability are not of importance to so many ordinary kiwis. I wanted both things. After choosing a landscaper recommended by the designer I found progress totally dependent on me chasing things up. Getting the base landscaping required co ordination with the builder. This was not seamless and slow delivery of my pergola wood really held things up.

Eventually things commenced but it was ALL supposed to finish for Christmas. A week before Christmas my landscaper told me he'd be finishing up that week, he had a lot on, so I would have to wait a couple of months for Christmas, New Year and his extended holiday.

I had added in a garden shed to be installed but everything else was per the plans. At least the front fences were done so I could paint them over the break and the irrigation of my flower beds was complete but there was still a bit to do. Oh and they broke part of the fence with a truck and put a hole in my stormwater system. Both of which they had to repair.

Then the lawn guy decided his bit would take a few days and it would be too much of a stretch to complete his bit by Christmas. I'd have to wait quite a long while as he was busy with his hobby rather than working after New Year. Sigh!

I didn't hear from my first landscaper though I had always made on- time progress payments. I gave him some leeway but eventually needed to call him as I needed lawns to be laid  by my lawn installer.

The landscaper arrived with a partially different and smaller crew. The most competent team member was now working elsewhere and I was left with two guys who spent as much time off site fluffing around getting supplies as they spent on the job. Sometimes they were gone 3 times a day and like many contractors the days are somewhat short.

The kitset garden shed was a standard Duratuff. It took them 8 hours to put it together, and rather badly too.

The landscaper knocked on my door just after completion and demanded $2500 extra. He said the bill for the driveway and paths was more than he expected so I would have to pay up. After all, he had done his best for me, had generously allowed me to have the leftover concrete as a pad for my shed so I had to be reasonable.

As a long-term unemployed person trying to survive and complete my only asset I was shocked and horrified. I told him a quote is a quote and I had no more money. He wasn't sympathetic and still expected the extra money. I was very upset and feeling vulnerable but my neighbour told me to stick to my guns.

Hard as it was I needed to. The landscaper finally gave in, muttering his business might go to the wall because of me.

I contacted my lawn installer who also had not kept in touch. Poor communication was a hallmark here. He had provided a quote but mistakes by the original designer who hadn't bothered to even visit my site when she did my plan meant she hadn't realised there was no council footpath. This meant I was responsible for landscaping quite a slice of land in front of my house. More expense, so I suggested the lawn guy come back to redo his quote. This time I was going to have gravel paths around my veggie beds so there was less for him to do out the back and a bit more in front. It pretty much evened out and I accepted a separate quote for lawn irrigation but the state of my lawn areas was a disgrace.

The first landscaper had lost interest and hadn't made it level. The lawn guy hadn't been in a hurry to start the job and so the lumps and bumps were covered with weeds and rocks which I tried to deal to as best I could. I needed to pay the lawn guy to do what I had paid the first guy.

The day before the lawn guy was due to start putting in the lawn irrigation tubes my neighbour and I barrelled gravel around the paths around my veggie beds after I had laid the weedmat. It was hot, heavy work which my lawn guy knew I was doing. He popped over to drop some boxing off. But when he started the irrigation the next day, his team started digging up my gravel paths, dumping dirt on them. The whole point of gravel and weedmat is to avoid dirt and weeds. I pointed this out and was reprimanded stiffly by the lawn guy and told not to hold up his team, not to create problems and stop commenting, they knew what they were doing. If he had told me he was digging up the previous day's work (he had seen me in action) I would have left the gravel off for him and made things easier. I found that every second meeting he was like Jekyll and Hyde. I'd lost a certain trust in him.

Things continued and the lawn was going down at last. Suddenly he packed up the lawn product back in his truck and took off saying he would finish the next week. Then I received a text saying he had run out of product and it would take a week to order more from Auckland. That was disappointing but what could I do?  And then came the knock on the door. He had to use more product than quoted so I would have to pay for more. His measurements weren't correct. He got nasty about it. I went inside to get the quote, came out while he was collecting his tools but he said said he didn't have time to discuss that with me, he had better places to be and that he had been more than generous with his time and given me what I wanted and listened to my ideas. HuH???? Isn't that what you do for clients?

My neighbours told me that if I had not been a woman on her own, if there had been a guy standing behind me, none of these jerks would have tried to extort more money.

Yet more nasty financial pressure. Again, my neighbours offered moral support and said stick to the quote. Ten days later he was back. He knew he had made a mistake but I had no trust at all and didn't want to have to deal with him. I told myself to hang in there and see it through. Meanwhile I had popped out with my neighbour to check out a nursery and as we returned they stopped to talk to their hydroseeding lawn guy. I sat quietly and listened but my jaw dropped when the lawn seeder said a guy he knew well in the lawn business was having a problem with a client. As the conversation I was listening to progressed it was clear the gossip concerned me. The whole thing was unprofessional. Even the seeding guy felt a quote was a quote. My neighbour nodded over to me so that the seeder stopped speaking abruptly. Shame. I'd have liked to hear the rest of the gossip.

Months later I now have lawns that look quite good except for some bare bits and some dying patches. I hope those will repair once Spring arrives.

Welcome to the NZ Wild West aka some landscaping contractors. I'm sure there are some good ones. I can only shine the light on my experiences of this very expensive stage of building a new home.They have no shame or decency. Their customer service is dependent on their moods. They leave upset and worried clients in their wake and they gossip. They gossip with other trades about clients and sometimes it gets back to the clients via a third party. Their clients take a back seat to these guys' hobbies so projects that should have taken 2 weeks can end up taking 5 months.

Some of my neighbours are less than happy with landscapers too. New subdivisions are ripe ground for ripoffs and dishonesty. The quality of work is extremely patchy and the quote prices are often astronomical. My lawn quotes had a range of $10,000 between the lowest and the highest. Allow at least 10% of the cost of your house build as the additional cost of landscaping.
This has been a horrid experience. Beware.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

The Residental Possum Trapper - ahh, those issues

Eliminating possums from your suburban property in the middle of a sparkly modern subdivision is anything but simple. You might catch the odd one in a Timms trap but sooner, rather than later, you are going to hit some barriers to progress. You might even fool yourself into thinking you've got them all, or maybe that you can't win so you give up and plant your backyard in boring grass and get a dog to stop the Aussie incursions.

Is that the kiwi way? In my experience that's what many of the residents of my street did, well, the ones that had anything like a garden to be destroyed. Most people's gardens in subdivisions aren't really gardens at all. They are just the same old green sticks marching in a row around the perimeter of sections. Naturally even the Aussie furballs disdain to spend time there, seeking more delectable offerings. Complaints to the developer fell on deaf ears so folks gave up. No-one except me has ever pursued this problem in this very large subdivison.

I worked with Dave the hunter, experimenting with traps and baits and strategies. Together we negotiated past herds of curious cows, stretched our groins to the limit trying to get over wire fences to look for Aussi corpses, checked bait lines, then trap lines. In total we eliminated 16 possums and we hope we've got them all but realistically we know we might have missed some and one day they'll be back to devastate my little paradise so I'll need to stay vigilant and hope Dave will always be there to call on.

Yes, I killed at least five on my property but it took a strong stomach, tons of stress, lots of discipline and determination and, quite importantly, regular guidance from a pest professional. My souvenir that still remains is a dried out corpse behind my back fence (see photos) of one that tried to get away. But I got you, you bastard.

Please understand this: I DID NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM by putting traps in my garden. The problem has been solved by leaning on the person responsible for the whole desperate drama: getting the property developer who owns the land where the possums lived to get rid of them.

I spoke to the Rolleston Residents Association; they were surprised there were possums but then they'd all lived here for 20+years, not in a swanky new subdivision. They sent my concerns to the district councillors but none of them bothered to contact me. I spoke to an ECan staff member who told me he got only eight complaints about possums per year so urban possums aren't an issue. REALLY??? But then he went on to say we all need to work together to eradicate them as per Predatorfree NZ, and then he contradicted himself by saying public interest is fleeting so public campaigns don't really work. I told him my theory as to why he wasn't getting complaints from residents and it had nothing to do with the number of possums.

Members of my street had complained to the property developer and got nowhere. Somehow they never thought to go further and complain to Ecan, DoC (who do nothing in urban areas even though they are charged with possum eradication) or the Selwyn District Council.

I obtained an appointment with Amy Adams MP for Selwyn. We got on surprisingly well even though I will never be a National Party supporter. She's a country girl who understands a bit about possums but said she learnt a few things from me. She suggested I talk to Selwyn District Council as she felt they had the power to put conditions on approval of subdivisions, maybe to ensure they were pest free before releasing the sections for sale?

I visited the planning department at SDC and they made it clear this is not the case. There are no legal avenues whereby they can put such conditions on a resource consent to a developer. They can't even put a warning note on a PIM to alert would-be section-buyers about possum infestations so there is no warning for folks like me. You buy in good faith but maybe there isn't any of that. Conflict of interest? Probably, since SDC are in very public partnership with the developer.

Amy suggested I put some heat on Eugenie Sage, Minister for Conservation, to allow biotechnology to be developed. What that might mean would include tinkering with genetic modification. Eugenie's Green so she won't have a bar of it. In the meantime NZ's natural heritage is rapidly being eliminated. I don't like the idea of gene technology but after this possum experience I'll accept anything that saves NZ and protects what little biodiversity is left. It's use technology or lose NZ. The choice is clear and we've already lost most of it in recent times. Eugenie doesn't respond to any of my communication channels.

Without support and help from anyone I've run out of steam and paths to tread. Can't say I've had any thank yous from the residents down my street for giving them the opportunity now to have a decent backyard.

Well, at least my garden is growing, that is, except my fruit trees that were so damaged they cannot even grow normal leaves. The leaves are a third the size they should be and there is no growth in tree size. They all are a fraction of the beginner size I bought last year and the shredded leaves are still visible on my roses and camelias. Who cares? No-one, it seems, except Dave, the kind professional hunter who helped me for a time to change traps (most of which did not succeed) select bait flavours ranging from licorice through peanut butter and cinnamon and shared his knowledge, even the distasteful bits, about the secret lives of possums.

Photos include: live and kill traps. the trap line down my street behind my house,one of the offending land parcels where the nasties were based. They cohabit with cows quite well as cows keep the grass short, which the possums prefer, so it's no wonder bovines can get TB from possums.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

The residential possum trapper Part 1

We all know that possums are a nasty predator that needs to be eliminated in New Zealand. It's an introduced pest from Australia and has only major negative effects here on our native flora and fauna https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_brushtail_possum . Most of us know that there's a pest programme called PredatorfreeNZ  https://predatorfreenz.org . It's dependent on volunteers.

It didn't feature much on my radar due to my personal circumstances but I felt it was a good idea to get rid of these pests because I love NZ wildlife and hate what introduced species and colonial stupidity have done to what was a natural paradise.

My perceptions and motivations changed dramatically after I moved into my brand new home and started planting my gardens and orchard in Rolleston. I chose my section based on research and the developer's marketing. Check out their video http://hughesdevelopments.co.nz/casestudies/faringdon/ . It's even more developed since this was filmed. This suburb is developed in official partnership with Selwyn District Council. Looks very urban doesn't it? Good amenities, tidy, modern in one of NZ's fastest growing towns managed by one of NZ's richest district councils. Rates here are over $3000.

Four nights after I had moved into my house my embryonic orchard had been wiped out. No leaves left, branches broken off, bark stripped. Possum attack!  Desperate I contacted Christchurch City Council and Selwyn District Council. Both brushed it off saying it was not their problem since the problem was mine, me being a private homeowner. I was told to hire a private pest controller.

I'm unemployed. Paying someone to get rid of the problem located elsewhere which was creating property damage was not possible. My garden is my hobby and also the only way I have to control some of my food costs and eat more nutritious food than you'll find at any supermarket. When I bought my section I bought a flashy, urban, fibre optic reality that did not include this shit. I rang Environment Canterbury who also said it was not their problem (despite the fact they are responsible for pest eradication). If seems their priorities are on Bank Peninsula or rabbits bothering lifestyle blockers or getting rid of wallabies in South Canterbury.
The Department of Conservation who, as we know, detest pests and tries to get rid of them refused to help as the problem was not on DOC land. Whose land was it that was the source of the problem?

It's owned by the developer and another land owner and despite complaints by residents in my street to the developer, long before I moved in, their complaints went ignored.

ECan gave me the number of a pest controller and so I called Dave but told him I had no money to pay for PredatorfreeNZ work. He very kindly said he'd pop round and check out my place. He was shocked by the devastation and offered to help for free. We set up a Timms trap at the corner of my section, erected a ramp from the top of the fence to the trap, added a bait trail and chose the licorce-flavoured bait. It was scary stuff. I live alone and I was entering 'new territory'.

I went to bed every night knowing there would be something scary to deal with later. Would it be a cadaver facing me the next morning or, worse, no cadaver at all? And all the while the damage continued. They started on my roses, then my camelias, then my lilacs. For the first two nights there was only damage. Then I heard the trap go off and knew I'd have to get rid of a body and re-arm the trap myself. I looked out my bedroom curtains. Was that a dark lump next to the trap? I had to wait for light to be sure. When I regarded the corpse something clicked in me. I stopped being a blindly loving animal lover. All I felt was anger, disgust and temporary relief that this one would no longer be destroying my home. It was me or them but the effects on my sleeping and mental health were very negative and I did not buy into this when I bought a section in Faringdon.

On one occasion a beast put up a fight inside the trap and I had to go out in my pyjamas and gumboots at 3.30am to make sure it died, one way or the other, because to lose one is really awful, knowing you have to go through it all over again just to get the same possum.

Possums get trap shy and bait shy. It is complicated to get rid of them when you are not allowed to put poison down, not allowed to shoot them. People with children would be loathe to even put traps down. I had to persist.

We put a trap right outside my bedroom window because we noticed possum paw prints all up and down one of my pergola posts.

One night I heard a bizarre noise outside my bedroom window. Half asleep I could not identify it- I imagined I was in Alaska, snowed into a cabin, alone, with a grizzly bear prowling outside, trying to get in to get me. Those of you who have heard possums calling each other will understand exactly how scary it could me on your own in a house at night with that going on above you. I forced myself out of bed to look outside.

God, there was a horrid beast on top of my pergola. I willed it to come down. It wandered to and fro on top of the pergola. Then it decided to slowly make it's way down head first, rubbing it's scent over the post. The trap seemed mildly interesting to it. For ages, it seemed, it put its front paws on top and just looked at it. Put your head in! Put your head in! I telepathed. Suddenly it did. whammo! It died pretty quickly from its airway and the major blood vessel to the brain being squished. Phew. Shaking, I went back to bed thinking that now I could relax and get some sleep.

About an hour later, still keyed up and not quite asleep I heard the trap being dragged across my bedroom patio. Well, what would YOU think? Resurrection? Defective trap? What did I need to deal with now? Peering through my curtains I saw another possum lurking around the dead one. Shit! I didn't know what to do. It moved across to eat my alyssums. I wished I had a loaded rifle beside the French doors. When I turned on the outside lights it just balefully stared at me. Just two feet away. It was not afraid. I opened the window and screamed at it. It strolled across my backyard and disappeared. I needed more traps. My professional trapping advisor told me he had video proof that possums are into necrophilia. Perhaps I had interrupted a session outside my bedroom. This is not nice, one pane of glass between me and THAT!

We set up three Timms traps but success was limited. We changed the bait on the ramp to peanut butter flavoured.

We then set up a big electric trap. Possum pelts are very dense and thick. The electrodes have to scratch the back skin of a possum in order to make contact and the possum has to put its front and back paws on the plates. Both the bait and the trap were a failure. Some Cinnamon bait was licked up but they found ways not to put both sets of paws on the plates. Electric traps are capable of multiple kills. Once one possum is electrocuted the machine must wait at least two minutes before dropping the body on the ground ready for the next. If it drops immediately the drop acts like a defibrillator and resuscitates the beast which can recover.

The possums were escaping from the Timms traps leaving fur behind. We can't explain this. Maybe they were putting just an arm in. I was running out of options. One night I saw a huge possum with a Timms trap on its head waving it back and forward, too big and powerful to die immediately. On another night I heard the trap go off, saw the possum sitting in the middle of my backyard just staring at me with its horrid eyes. It then waltzed up the ramp and disappeared. Two weeks later we found it dead behind my fence. A huge size. Flat and cooked by 30+ degree temperatures.

Then the possums started eating my house. They have bitten two chucks out of the front beam of my bedroom pergola. There is a vicious claw mark on a rafter. Why? They were marking their territory. I did not feel safe in my new home. I was told not to have any windows open in the middle of this hot summer, even the ones with window stays, because a possum in my house would create huge damage. The possums controlled my life and this is not fair.

No amount of online info or free trap libraries can solve situations like this. Would you have the intestinal fortitude, the emotional strength to deal with this month after month? I didn't feel I did and for the past month all emails and voice messages to the developer (the founder and his marketing manager) went unanswered. Christmas, New Year, lengthy overseas holidays.

What about the other people down your street? I door knocked to ascertain attitudes and the extent of the problem.
Responses ranged across the following:

  • Back garden wiped out, decided not to replant due to possum problem so just lawn and a dog to protect against possums
  • Front garden seriously damaged, preferring to sell up and leave the area (though not just because of possums). Fed up with the subdivision and the developer
  • Mothers worried about the health of their children as there is so much possum excrement on the fences etc. Possums carry diseases such as TB
  • Mounting anger towards the subdivision developer Hughes Developments and SDC for not eradicating these monsters before selling us the sections - they say the developer did not respond to their complaints and does not treat everyone equally when enforcing the covenants.
  • Sorry about your garden Frances but we will not support you if you do anything publicly about this as we don't want you wrecking our property values. 

In Part two I will outline the developer's response, my kill toll, what I'm doing to try to save what's left of the stumps of my fruit trees, the community and political aspects and more on baits and traps and what to do with cadavers.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Building in NZ - Window treatments and other interior design decisions

I had no idea how much I needed to budget for a house lot of window dressings so I asked people
down the street that I met on my walks, what their experiences had been. Many were so strapped for money at that point of the build they had gone super-budget with businesses like the Curtain Studio - ready-made drapes. The custom drapes were much more pricey yet the fabric choices remained limited. I decided to stay away from the usual suppliers and do a lot of the sourcing myself. In the end I got a house lot for a medium price; practical window treatments that are unique.

As part of the build contract my builder had given me a consultation with an interior design company. I already had pretty clear ideas of the sort of things I wanted and didn't want and had already purchased my main curtain material which they could not access. Well done Millers Homeworld for your prompt service in ordering in material from the UK. They made it easy and they kept me in the loop.

It was  useful to test my ideas against those of the design experts. They confirmed my paint colours would work and suggested velvet drapes in the two bedrooms. These are becoming more in vogue and work very well. Different weights and prices are available. I already had my bed linen organised so my colour palette was pretty much predetermined. This was the fun part for me. I would never have left this to the professionals or I might have ended up with black and white like most new-builds.

I thought I would have liked shutters - all the rage - but they were much too expensive for me and they block a good portion of the window space so I chose wood-look blinds. They aren't wood so they are light and supposed to be UV-stabilised but keep in mind that there are size limits. Decide if you want cord or chain operation. I chose chain because cord gets grubby from your hands very quickly. I didn't want metal Venetian blinds as I am after a soft European/French look, keeping in mind my house IS a modern kiwi house with French embellishments.

My lighting consists mostly of French-style chandeliers, taking advantage of a 2.7m stud. Anything shorter than that height means you can't have a decent chandelier.

Don't be afraid to use colour. I wanted a couple of feature wallpaper walls in my house but couldn't afford that so opted for a strong paint colour on one. It really adds style and anchors everything else that tones in. If I came into a better financial situation I could always add wallpaper later.
Some folks are trying the new Italian interior plastering effects. These look great but were too expensive for me. My dollars had to go on a decent hearth for my logfire. My contract stipulated a logfire but said nothing about a hearth so I found myself realising towards the end of the build that I would have an unexpected and not inconsiderable extra expense. Those guys get booked up solid so finding the right tiles and especially a good and available tiler at short notice can be challenging.

The kitchen door was a challenge. How could I aesthetically cover it and still be practical for trips to and from the vegetable garden? A roman blind does the trick, especially in harrow spaces. It also introduced the main patteern into the other end of this large living space.

I'm into recycling things I love from France. My bedsit in Rambouillet was on the ground floor of Louis the XVI's locksmith's house (Monsieur Dablin). Consequently it had an extremely high ceiling and windows. I had found some unlined cheery shot silk orange taffeta curtains at a DIY store the curtains then followed me to my next abode and eventually back to NZ. Possessed of several curtains I used two for the main window in my office and had the third transformed into a roman blind for the narrow window in the room. They look great, even though they had to be shortened for my 2.7m stud. I planted Remember Me rose outside the window to carry the shot colours out into the garden.

One of the advantages of having an interior design business do your window treatments is that they get materials cheaper and this offsets their prices so you end up with a nicely coordinated look for little more. My consultants had a workroom which meant I could easily get cushions custom-made with piping from off cuts of the materials I had bought.

I changed the dining nook into a library by getting joiners in to install shelving and a long window seat where I could read and look out on my roses and lavender. The seat lifts up and supplies great storage. However, I needed my interior design consultant to organise a squab for it. She couldn't find a suitable material so I had to do that. I found I was getting pretty good at finding things that worked together.

Consider the view outside each room. What colours do you want to see in your plantings? Don't forget you might need some photos or artworks for your walls. The budget pressures never seem to stop and in my case, I didn't have enough furniture for a three-bed home so some had to be ordered. I waited for sales, suppressing my impatience at having to wait months in order to get things cheaper.

This was a six-month build. Most things went smoothly but I did have to keep a close eye on things. The worst week of the entire build was waiting for Selwyn District Council inspector to get on with his paperwork after final inspection. I was left in anxious limbo unnecessarily worried about whether I could actually move in, if so, what about the validity of house and contents insurance as many insurers will not insure unless you have your Code of Compliance paperwork. I didn't get that until days after I moved in and after my builder went around to the Council to try to sort out the holdup. In the end we had to await the pleasure of the Council staff.

There only remains to talk about landscaping next post. A significant part of your budget.