Roni consults with fellow Delta Science Center volunteer Dr. Mike Painter during construction of the DSC's new rice greenhouse on Jersey Island on Monday, May 19. Learning from last year's mistakes, the crew decided on a design change before planting this year's AFRI rice research project. Photo by Glenn.

It's not easy being green

May 25, 2014: Cleaning our garage may have been an all-consuming task during a 9-day stretch in early spring, but that was just the tip of the trash mound. All that debris we removed from indoors had to go somewhere, and for lack of a better alternative it mostly wound up sitting in the side yard near the garage door, blocking our gate so that nothing could get in or out, turning to mulch under the parade of storms that brought us enough rain to be annoying but too little to help our state escape an upcoming drought. We set out to tackle the pile methodically, placing a couple of trash bags out each week with the garbage pickup, as well as bundling up flattened cardboard for the recyclers. At that rate, we figured it would take us just a little more than a decade to find our side yard again. OK, perhaps not that long, but certainly we'd be well into summer. We needed a better way.

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Our rented U-Haul pickup truck is the perfect size to haul away three mattresses we've had hogging space in our garage for several years. Photo by Glenn.

Roni may be smiling after unloading the mattresses at the Contra Costa Waste Transfer Station in Pittsburg, but it has nothing to do with the odiferous surroundings of the piles of rotting garbage. Photo by Glenn.

Roni lights the candles of Ben's 20th birthday cake on Friday, May 2. Photo by Glenn.

Ben contemplates the significance of leaving his teens behind while Grandpa Gehlke looks on. We were happy to have Ben's grandparents and Uncle Sean over to help celebrate on a Friday night. Photo by Glenn.

A few of Ben's gifts arrived after the party, including this lifelike cutout of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, courtesy Sean. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn is stylin' in his loaner dayglow yellow construction vest for a photo tour of levee construction work on Jersey Island. The state of California is preparing to install a temporary drought barrier on False River, and the levee must be strengthened first. Photo by Roni.

Roni gets the more traditional "safety orange" vest for the day's photo assignment for the Ironhouse Sanitary District. It's good to be visible around the endless parade of semi-trucks hauling dirt and assorted earthmoving equipment. Photo by Glenn.

The foundation is already constructed and the soil tilled as Roni shows off the huge space available for this year's Delta Science Center rice greenhouse. All it needs now is the PVC ribbing and some plastic sheeting. Photo by Glenn.

The greenhouse is mostly constructed by the time Glenn sits down on May 17 to build the frame for the front door. He's having fun with his new cordless saw. Photo by Roni.

Dr. Mike looks on while Glenn works on attaching the hinges to the door frame. We put the finishing touches on the greenhouse on Monday morning, May 19. Photo by Roni.

A look at the inside of the rice greenhouse illustrates how huge it is. You can't tell from the picture, but the temperature in here was in the humid 90s while outside was just 77 degrees. Photo by Glenn.

There are few seasons more beautiful than spring when it comes to our backyard. The flowers of our ice plants are all in multicolored bloom during late April, a display that lasts about two weeks. Photo by Glenn.

A very young praying mantis takes up residence at the end of one of the leaves on our patio orange tree. We don't often see them this early in the year, so it was a rare treat. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn shows off the overgrown roots of one of the grass plants that has been growing in our patio pond. When we put it in the barrel about three years ago it all fit inside the original pot the plant came in. The roots contributed to the demise of our original pump, which we finally replaced May 10. Photo by Roni.

To avoid the root problems in the future we decided to plant the grass in a separate container. Finally we have a good use for the frog planter we bought last year. Photo by Glenn.

We picked up this fun fish spitter on clearance from Home Depot to give the rejuvenated pond a new water feature. Photo by Glenn.

The birds have been nesting all around our yard, but this is the first baby dove we've seen, on May 10. You can see the unhatched "dud" egg underneath the baby. Photo by Roni.

The baby left the nest shortly after we took the previous photo. It wasn't quite ready to be on its own, so it huddled under a patio chair while mom and dad kept a close watch nearby. Sadly, we don't think it survived. Photo by Glenn.

May is cherry season, and we are excited to have our first crop in several years. It won't be too difficult to harvest, as these are the only two cherries. We might have to put them on ice cream sundaes to celebrate. Photo by Glenn.

Folks around the world were oohing and aahing at the total lunar eclipse of April 14. It was a crystal clear night and we too were duly impressed by the darkening orb. Photo by Roni.

Fortunately our garbage company allows us a couple of bonus collection days each year, meaning that for the price of a phone call they'll come to relieve you of up to one cubic yard of stuff, provided that it is neatly arranged in sealed plastic bags or boxes, and that you have no more than 12 such containers, and that they contain none of the 3,592 things they won't allow you to get rid of, such as unused paint, e-waste or furniture. There are other limitations too. For instance, you can't schedule your two bonus pickups in back-to-back weeks. It's sort of like in the movie "Ghostbusters" where they couldn't cross the proton streams because "it would be bad." We would have to schedule our pickup, wait a few weeks, then try again.

We'd only been at it about four weeks with the slow-and-steady approach of topping off our trash can with a bag or two each week and hadn't made much progress. Taking matters into her own hands, Roni made the call on April 24 so that we'd be sure to get a bonus pickup the next morning. We rounded up the 12 biggest, heaviest Hefty bags we could muster and stacked them at the curb with our regular cans, careful to disguise anything the disposal company might see as objectionable, such as protruding pieces of wood or metal. Out of sight, out of mind. We also gave them an extra large stack of cardboard in addition to all the stuff that actually fit in the recycling bin. They picked it up the next morning, no problem.

But while the bonus collection helped a bit, we quickly realized that we weren't going to get rid of everything we needed gone. Aside from a few more trash bags and tons of cardboard — just HOW did we acquire so dang much cardboard? — a lot of what we had left was wood. So why not simply take it to a wood recycling company? First, we have too much wood to fit in our Toyota Corollas; we hadn't even dealt with the leftover spa and gazebo debris on the opposite side of the house. Second, a lot of the wood we have isn't considered wood at all, but rather particle board. Like the cardboard, the particle board had been piling up in the garage through the years, but no one seems to want it for recycling.

The answer was to chop the big boards into small enough pieces that they could be "concealed" in the trash can — a waste, really — or "repurpose" them somehow. It was decided that the better boards could be put to use building shelves in both the garage and our Writing Sanctuary to provide more storage space. Not only would we use up some of the boards, but we'd also have more places to store things so they wouldn't otherwise re-clutter the garage.

But still there were those things that couldn't be dealt with so creatively, and to get rid of them would require availing ourselves of the countless "green waste" companies that specialize in such services.

Take paint cans, for example. We had a lot of them, even after we had neatly arranged those we still wanted on a shelf in the garage. We used the "tap test" to separate the good from the bad; any can that sounded empty when we tapped the lid or banged it against the concrete was added to the discard pile. The Delta Diablo Sanitation District in Antioch runs a free household hazardous waste drop-off station at its facility that takes a lot of the stuff the garbage company won't, so one Saturday afternoon we packed a bunch of it into the back of Roni's car and headed off down the road with visions of a cleaner garage dancing in our heads.

There was a car ahead of us for the drop-off site when we got there, and an attendant wearing the familiar white moon suit of hazmat fame waved us back when our car crept past the stop sign we'd missed amid all the other posted warning signs — God forbid we should be too close if the car ahead of us should spontaneously combust from all the unstable chemicals it undoubtedly had on board. When it was our turn, we rolled up to the collection point and were interrogated by the attendant about the nature of our delivery while one of his accomplices went around to the trunk to have a peek inside. We'd brought about a dozen mostly empty paint cans, a box with unused chlorine from when we'd had our spa, some expired pesticides and a few bottles of used motor oil — enough ingredients to make an unappetizing toxic stew.

The attendant and his accomplice consulted about the contents of our trunk, and then with a frown he quoted us a section of the California Vehicle Code in which motor vehicles aren't allowed to carry more than 125 pounds of hazardous waste without a permit. We could be cited or arrested and fined tens of thousands of dollars for such a flagrant violation. But because he was a good sport, he'd let us slide this time and take half the stuff we'd brought. We would have to bring the other half back another day. Say what? First of all, the grand total weight of what we'd brought with us wasn't anywhere near 125 pounds. Second, as the accomplice soon discovered, most of the paint cans contained dried-up latex. Technically we were permitted to simply throw the dry paint away in the trash can, and that being the case, the attendant said they'd do us a favor and take everything that day, saving us the return trip, possibly a night in jail, and certainly a black mark on our permanent record (or whatever it's called outside of elementary school.)

He handed us a flier listing all the items the drop-off site will take — for the next time we might dare darken his lair — and sent us on our way with a smirk. We had a good laugh over his ego trip as we trundled our now-empty car through Antioch, feeling like a couple of outlaws. It sure would have been nice to know about the 125-pound limit before we'd gotten there. Not even their website made that clear. But it did get us to thinking how easy it would be to violate the law. What about the times we've bought huge buckets of paint from Home Depot to repaint the house? Those things weigh a ton. You mean that common folk are breaking the law when they pick up a few gallons of Roundup and bug killer from the garden center? Our streets that lovely spring day were probably clogged with potential hazardous materials felons. And what of our deceased plasma TV? The drop-off center handles e-waste, but would they want to deal with our 125-pound flat screen? For that matter, would we? Points to ponder.

* * * * *

ONE OF THE biggest obstacles to completing our cleanup project was the collection of old mattresses we liberated from the front of the garage. There was a time a couple of decades ago when we acquired a new queen-sized mattress set for our bedroom and thought it would be worth hanging onto the double bed that had originally been Glenn's since the time he was 4 years old. How great it would be to have an extra bed we could pull out for company should the need ever arise, we thought. Yeah, right. Like anyone would want to sleep on that worn-out mattress after it had been sitting in the garage for years collecting spiders and rodent droppings.

You'd think we finally learned not to repeat that mistake when it came time to ditch Ben's first mattress, but something possessed us to hang onto that one too, and so for a few years we had two sets of useless mattresses occupying useful space in the garage. One of the reasons they are so hard to get rid of is because they are considered furniture and no one will haul them away for free, even as part of a debris box pickup; we had to pay $35 to dump Ben's old crib set years ago. All the components of a mattress or box spring set can be recycled if one is willing to take the time to strip them down to the wood, metal and fabric. Glenn was just game enough to try.

Some months ago we "repurposed" the box frame from Ben's bed set, stripping away all but the wood. We had this idea that it would make a cool base for some piece of yard art we wanted to attempt. We would hook it to the chimney outdoors and then use the frame to make a plant shelf or some such thing. But we never got around to that part of the project, and the rickety frame constantly blew over in the still winter winds, breaking things and causing a general nuisance. So we deemed the project a failure and vowed not to repeat the mistake with the remaining mattresses. We left them on the front porch instead, until such time as we could deal with them.

Never being one eager to throw away money for things he can do himself, Glenn tried to convince Roni that the three remaining mattresses could be stripped easily and then given to a metal recycler to haul away for free. He had a plan to do it, but not the patience. Roni didn't want to wait for weeks for the disposal process to happen while the mattresses cluttered up the front porch. She finally called the garbage company to find out what it would cost to haul the pieces away. We'd thought maybe $40, but were shocked to learn it would cost almost $90. No wonder folks leave them sitting on the side of deserted country lanes!

The mattresses might still be sitting on the porch if not for a quirk of fate. We had to drive into Oakland one Saturday morning to collect a print job for a client, and as part of the job we had to rent a pickup truck to carry the load. With the truck empty at the end of the trip, Roni suggested we use it to haul away the mattresses before returning it to the rental company. It would still cost $57 ($19 per piece) to deliver it ourselves, but that would be cheaper than the garbage company and we already had the truck, so no additional rental charge.

The three mattresses filled the tailgate of our rented Ford. We drove them to the Contra Costa Transfer Station in Pittsburg, our first time there. The nearest public landfill is in Martinez, so the transfer station is sort of a "dump lite." The attendants took our credit card at the gate and verified the contents of our cargo, then we were directed to a giant warehouse at one side of the property. Another attendant pointed out our dump spot, and Glenn backed up the truck as far as he could before we started running over other debris. We hopped out of the cab and... ooooooh, that smell! Nothing like tons of rotting garbage to make you work faster. We hustled our way through unloading the mattresses and beat it out of that place as fast as we could.

We were disappointed that the mattresses weren't going to be recycled in any way. We were more disappointed at having to spend the money to dispose of them, but at least they were no longer on our porch. We celebrated by going out to a barbecue lunch at a new place in Antioch called House of Catfish N Ribs. The barbecue joint was delish, but the ventilation was terrible, so by the time we got home we smelled like a campfire. At least it was better than the odor of putrid garbage.

* * * * *

IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN. The arrival of spring means it's time to break out the greenhouse supplies and replant the Delta Science Center's rice field on Jersey Island. With a year of experience under their belts, Roni's trusty band of volunteers had some ideas about what to do differently this year to prevent some of the disasters that befell the project in 2013, not the least of which were the stout Delta breezes that battered the property and reduced the plastic covering the hothouses to shreds.

Perhaps the best change was that Roni decided to hold off planting the new rice crop until late May — about six weeks later than last year. This helped avoid some of the worst weather and allowed time to redesign the greenhouse from scratch. Last year there were six small "hoop-style" greenhouses built from PVC pipe. That proved problematic because they were too small to work in and were not sturdy enough to withstand the elements. This time around, we went with one giant structure to cover a 12x50-foot plot.

Our friend Dr. Mike Painter stumbled across a large pile of redwood someone had illegally discarded from an old deck, and he repurposed the boards to form the base of the new greenhouse. He drove rebar into the peat soil upon which he attached about two-dozen 20-foot PVC pipes to make the hoop frame over which we stretched a large roll of plastic sheeting. To create a door at one end, Glenn was drafted to build a small frame out of 2x3 lumber that we would nail to the redwood base and then enclose in plastic.

Because there is no electricity at the Jersey Island rice field and we thought it would be easier to work on site, we bought a cheap cordless drill and circular saw set from Home Depot when we picked up the wood for the project. We stopped by home to grab some other tools and then headed straight for the island on a warm Saturday morning. Roni immediately rolled up the plastic on the front of the greenhouse where we would be working and the blast of heat that came out felt like a summer day on the Louisiana bayou; the temperature and humidity must have been over 100 degrees.

Things did not go entirely smoothly with the construction despite having all our nifty new tools. The drill we bought was defective and wouldn't drive screws at all. The battery for the saw was only partially charged and gave out after just a few cuts. The nails we'd found bent easily when we hammered them. Sigh. Fortunately we had a hand saw, a manual screwdriver and a hammer capable of removing even the most stubborn nails, so we muddled through until the heat and hunger finally wore us both down. But we'd gotten the frame built enough that it was able to do the job until we returned Monday morning to finish the door with Dr. Mike's help.

It's not perfect, but the new greenhouse seems promising. Roni is soaking her rice kernels for a few days before we flood the field and the planting commences. Hopefully she'll have a crop to transplant sometime in late June.

* * * * *

ALL OUR WORK in the rice field seems to have inspired us to get to our own gardening, which always manages to go neglected until spring is encroaching on summer and it gets too hot for us to want to work outside. We took advantage of a rare free Saturday to finally tackle the patio pond, the pump for which died sometime last year for reasons we couldn't quite ascertain. We knew that it had become clogged and would no longer function, and try as we might we couldn't repair it, so the first order of business was to head to Home Depot for a new pump and some other supplies.

We took advantage of the fact we were replacing the pump to do a thorough cleaning of the barrel, where the stagnant water was growing mosquitoes and little else. In addition to some beautiful irises that were just starting to emerge from their winter hibernation, the pond also is home to an ornamental grass plant that we got in a small plastic pot last year. We never transplanted it, and simply left it in its plastic pot so the roots could soak up the water. Well, soak it up they did, because when we pulled out the pot during the cleanup we immediately discovered the source of our pump malfunction: the roots of the grass plant had taken over half the pond.

The roots resembled some bearded alien creature, its tentacle-like fingers gripped firmly around one of the cinder blocks that was used to support it in the pond. Roni had decided to finally transplant it into a larger container, but she didn't want to cut the roots to free it from the plastic pot, so instead we just cut away as much of the pot as we could and then put it in a decorative clay pot we had available. The jury is still out as to whether this was a good idea. The grass was doing fine in the pond, but it is also supposed to be good in regular soil. So far it has been turning brown, so we soon may have to return it to the pond proper.

As for the new pump, it has been finicky so far. We hooked it up to a fish-shaped spitter we got on clearance with the goal that it would shoot a steady stream of water into the pond. Unfortunately, the spitter has turned into more of a dribbler, with water running pitifully down the fish's front and spilling onto the patio. The pump is doing a poor job of keeping constant water pressure, so every couple of days we have to readjust the flow. Annoying.

We've had somewhat better success with our weeding, which although started belatedly has been progressing throughout the spring. If only the garbage company would collect the green waste more often than every other week, we'd get through the weed piles much faster.

* * * * *

BEN OFFICIALLY SAID GOODBYE to his teens on May 2 when we helped him celebrate his 20th birthday. The day included a small family gathering in the evening, with Ben's grandparents and uncle from Hayward coming to help celebrate and share a barbecue dinner. Ben was happy to receive his offerings of cash and gift cards as well as a new cordless razor and a task chair to replace the well-worn one he uses at his computer desk in his bedroom.

After several weeks of part-time work for his Aunt Jacki through the county's In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program, Ben finally got his first five paychecks all at one time in the mail. It had been an odyssey trying to get him paid, with the delay coming down to an incorrect name on his county-furnished time sheets. He's excited to finally have some hard-earned spending cash, but at the same time he is back to looking for full-time work because part-time pay doesn't go very far. If you have a job that would be down his alley, by all means please let him know!

That's going to have to wrap up this rather long missive. We're bopping along through the long Memorial Day weekend, but the end of the month is rapidly approaching and we need to post this soon. More adventures to share in June.


Glenn, Roni and Ben