Common Signs of Poorly Installed Windows

Abandoned House with Broken Window
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New windows should make your home more comfortable, but if they aren’t installed correctly, they’ll do just the opposite. Poorly installed windows can leave you with chilly drafts, damaging leaks, and high energy bills.

Spot the signs early, though, and you can get a bad installation job corrected before it causes any major problems.

Strange Noises

Squeaking, creaking or cracking noises when you open or close the window are often the first signs of a bad installation. These sounds usually mean the window is too tight or loose, or that the hinges, stays or other hardware were installed incorrectly.

They can also come from windows with low quality glass and frames, which deform more with temperature changes, and can become too loose or tight depending on the weather.

Noticeable Gaps

A fairly obvious sign of trouble, gaps between the frame and the window sill or wall mean the window wasn’t the correct size to begin with. Either the installer chose the wrong size of prefabricated windows or didn’t measure properly for custom windows.

Gaps like this can cause air leaks that waste your heated or cooled indoor air and water leaks that damage your walls and floors. Smaller gaps can be corrected with shims, backer rod and caulk or expanding foam, but fixing large ones might require replacing the window entirely.

Difficulty Opening and Closing

This problem usually shows up in double-hung sash windows, but it can happen with slider, casement, and awning windows, too. If a window was correctly installed, it should open and close fully and smoothly without any sticking.

If your window sticks so much you have to force it to move or it doesn’t reach the frame when you try to close it, you have a problem. Either the sash wasn’t properly aligned, or it’s the wrong size for the window. A window like this is liable to have gaps that will eventually cause leaks.

Drafts

If you’ve noticed the room where your new windows were installed suddenly feels drafty, the windows are probably to blame. Even gaps that are too small to see can still let chilly drafts into your home, along with excess humidity and outdoor air pollution.

This usually happens because the windows either weren’t fit or weren’t caulked properly. Incorrect installation can also cause the seal on a double- or triple-pane window to break, which can leave you with drafts.

You might be able to pinpoint the gaps just by holding your hand up to the window frame and feeling for air movement. If not, use a lit incense stick or HVAC smoke pen. Air coming through any gaps will blow the smoke around.

Smaller leaks around the frame might only need caulking, but if the seal on your double- or triple-pane window is broken, you’ll need a new window.

Water Damage

A badly installed window is highly likely to leak. At first, you might only notice slight dampness or mold under the window or along the window frame and sill. Over time, though, you’ll find peeling paint or wallpaper, puffy walls, large patches of mold growth, and eventually, rotting walls.

Leaks due to bad installation typically happen because the windows aren’t level. Other times, it’s a case of flashing that was poorly installed or broken. Using building paper in place of window flashing can also lead to leaks.

Because a leaky window can cause serious damage to your walls and floor, contact your installer as soon as you notice any signs of water infiltration.

Fog Between the Panes

Between the panes of a double-pane window is a layer of inert argon gas that slows down heat conduction and improves your window’s energy efficiency. If the window’s seal breaks, this gas escapes and water vapor can seep in. The water vapor condenses into fog or water droplets between the panes of glass.

If you see this, your window is permanently damaged, and you’ll need a replacement. If it’s a new window, damage during installation is the most likely cause. As long as the window is still under warranty, replacement shouldn’t cost you anything.

Bad Caulking

More than just a finishing touch, caulk plays an essential role in your window’s ability to keep out the elements. Your windows should have a visible, clean line of caulk around them. Caulk that’s uneven, patchy or generally sloppy suggests your installer might have been equally lazy with the rest of the job.

The exception is caulk on stucco, brick or textured siding, which can develop minor gaps as it dries no matter how carefully your installer applied it. Caulk takes several weeks to cure fully, so check it again a month after your windows have been installed.

Leftover Mess

Even the most skilled window installation job can make quite a mess. That’s why installers generally advise you to move furniture out of the way or cover it and cover the floor.

No matter how much mess they make, though, reliable installers take the time to clean up thoroughly by removing debris and sweeping up dust. An installer who skips cleanup is likely to have skipped steps during the installation, too.

Also, pay attention to the window glass. Window installers use a variety of adhesives, fillers, caulk, and other sticky stuff that can end up on the glass. Most installers will clean the glass, but there’s always a chance they’ll miss spots.

Check your windows after installation and let your installer know about any spots so they can clean immediately to prevent staining.

A few small smudges or streaks are no problem, but if your installer left your window a mess or left any permanent stains, it calls the rest of their work into question.

No Warranty

Your new windows should come with a manufacturer’s warranty. If you didn’t get a warranty, it’s a red flag that your windows weren’t installed correctly. Every window manufacturer provides specific installation guidelines that must be met in order for the warranty to be valid.

If your installer didn’t give you the warranty, it suggests they made mistakes or cut corners in a way that voided the warranty.

By inspecting your newly installed windows and looking out for signs of trouble, you can protect your home from a lot of potential damage. If you suspect you’ve got a case of poorly installed windows on your hands, contact your installation company. They should be able to correct any problems at no extra charge.

Posted on Categories Windows

4 Signs of a Bad Tile Job

Man Planning Tile Work
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An attractive, durable tiling job takes skill and time to achieve, so it’s not something just any contractor can do. If you suspect your tiled wall or floor didn’t turn out quite the way it should have, there are a few tell-tale signs to look for.

Tiling mistakes are easier to correct within the first 24 hours, before the grout sets, so always inspect a new tiling job as soon as possible.

Crooked Tiles

Unless the design calls for something else, such as a complex mosaic pattern, tiles should fall in line with each other. Crooked tiles can occur for a number of reasons.

The grout may have been spread unevenly, or the contractor may have neglected to use spacers or battens (small rods) to hold the tiles in place as the grout cured. Wall tiles that sag in certain areas may lack sufficient support. Installing a board for support can solve the problem, but the tiling will have to be re-done.

In other cases, the angle of your tiles might have nothing to do with the way they were installed. Water damage from a leak, damage from insects or overall deterioration in the wall behind the tile can weaken the grout and allow the tiles to slip out of place.

Uneven Tiles

Tiles that are so uneven you can see a difference between their heights or feel the difference while walking across them were generally installed incorrectly.

There are some exceptions, though. Handmade tiles and tiles made from exotic materials, such as shell, may be irregularly shaped or simply exceptionally difficult to install. It’s also possible your floor or wall itself is uneven.

A slight bump in the floor may become more pronounced with tile over it, so you might notice a difference where you didn’t before. A thorough contractor can grind down the high spots and fill in the low spots to create an even surface, but not all do this.

If you’re using fairly standard tiles and there are no irregularities on your floor or wall, then chances are something went wrong during the installation.

One of the most common problems is “lippage,” the uneven surface that occurs when a tile is higher than the one beside it. This most often shows up with large and rectangular tiles, and is caused by the contractor choosing the wrong offset, or pattern, in which to lay the tiles.

Uneven application of thinset or mortar, which holds the tiles in place, is another potential cause of uneven tiles. This typically happens when the contractor was rushed and didn’t take time to spread the adhesive evenly.

Uneven tiles aren’t something you should ignore. They present a tripping hazard and increase the likelihood the tile will chip on the edges. Tiles like these are also harder to keep clean.

Poorly Fit Tiles

Because few spaces in a home are perfectly regular, your tile installer will most likely have to cut some tiles to fit around inset areas of the wall or a fixture such as the shower or toilet. Signs of poorly fit tiles include gaps, thick grout used to hide gaps, and thin strips of tile or broken tiles used to fill in narrow spaces.

Experienced contractors plan to have around 10 percent more tile than the minimum they need to for the space to account for breakage and cutting errors.

If you didn’t supply your installer with enough spare tiles, they might have made do with what they had, leaving you with imperfect results. Even so, it’s something you’ll want to address with your contractor.

Excess Grout

Grout protruding from between your tiles is a clear sign of an amateur or rushed installation job. If the grout hasn’t fully hardened, you can scrape it out with a wooden, preferably oak, stick. This will remove the grout without scratching the tiles.

If the grout has set for more than a week or so, you might find it impossible to get rid of the excess.

Too much grout might be unsightly, but it’s not a major problem in and of itself. It’s really only an issue if you suspect the contractor made other mistakes due to inexperience or lack of time.

While some of these signs might seem purely cosmetic, they suggest a sloppy or inexpert tiling job. That means there could be underlying problems that won’t show up for a while.

For instance, your installer might have used the wrong type of adhesive, which can cause the tiles to fall out, or applied the adhesive in such a way that the tiles are at risk for cracking.

If your tiles are crooked or uneven, or otherwise seem poorly installed, contact an experienced tile installer to come give them a look. If the problem turns out to be serious or just something you’d prefer to correct, chances are the tiles will have to be broken and removed so the contractor can install new tile correctly.

Posted on Categories Interior

12 Best Fragrant Houseplants

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Naturally fragrant houseplants can improve the whole ambiance of a room, creating a more calming or a more invigorating atmosphere, or even evoking memories of your favorite vacation. A few fragrant flowers and herbs do especially well indoors. Among these, you have a variety of choices including intoxicating florals, crisp citrus scents, and appetizing herbal aromas.

Sweet and Floral

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If the scent of a flower garden in full bloom is your thing, there are plenty of fragrant flowering plants that can bring that summertime mood indoors.

Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)

© Maksim Shebeko / Adobe Stock

The sweet, heady fragrance of the gardenia’s flower is the main reason this plant is so popular. Each rose-like bloom lasts for around a week, but when conditions are right, the plant can keep blooming all summer.

It’s picky about its living conditions, though, and requires high humidity, at least six hours of bright light a day, cooler temperatures to set buds and warmer temperatures while in bloom. You’ll also need to keep a close eye out for pests.

Pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum)

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When this plant’s tiny, pale pink flowers open in the evening, they can fill a room with their intensely sweet fragrance and evoke the mood of a desert summer night. The plant can bloom all year, and it’s not particularly demanding, either.

Like other jasmine species, it prefers full sun to light, partial shade and needs a deep watering every two weeks or more often when in bloom. Its fast-growing branches should be pruned regularly or trained on a trellis or arch. Some find the scent overwhelming, so make sure you like it before you bring one of these plants into your home.

Lavender (Lavandula)

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With its clean, calming fragrance, lavender is perfect for the bedroom or kitchen. The plant doesn’t need much, but the one thing it must have is abundant direct sunlight. The sill of a south-facing window is the ideal spot as long as it’s free from drafts. This plant dislikes wet feet, so let the soil dry slightly between waterings. Overwatering can cause root rot, which frequently kills lavender plants.

To harvest the flowers for scented sachets or tea, cut branches back to the first set of leaves and hang them to dry. Cutting branches promotes growth and blooming, but cutting just the flower tips can have the opposite effect.

Plumeria (Plumeria rubra)

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The brightly colored flowers of the plumeria, or frangipani, plant are best known for their use in Hawaiian leis. They not only look good, but also produce a gentle, fruity scent that will lend a distinctly tropical air to your home.

While not overly fussy, plumeria doesn’t tolerate neglect well. It requires a bare minimum of five hours of bright sunlight daily, evenly moist soil, and moderate temperatures and humidity. In winter, it goes dormant and drops its leaves. You can store it in a cool (around 55 degrees) place for this period.

Scented geranium (Pelargonium)

Photo Credit: cultivar413

Most geraniums have a light scent naturally, but scented geraniums were bred for specific aromas. Choose from rose, lemon, mint, spice, coconut, and chocolate among others. To maximize their olfactory impact, group several plants by scent type, such as spicy or fruity.

They do best in bright sunlight, but moderate temperatures. Use well-drained soil. Soil that’s too rich in organic matter reduces their fragrance. These plants are drought-tolerant and should be allowed to dry thoroughly between waterings.

Orchids (Orchidaceae family)

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While known primarily for their showy blooms, many orchids also produce distinct floral, spice or citrus fragrances. Brassavola nodosa, or “Lady of the Night,” releases a strong citrus scent in the evening. Aeranthes grandalena produces a jasmine-like scent, while orchids in the Gongora genus typically produce a spicy fragrance.

Orchids require shallow planting in well-drained soil that’s kept moist. Give them bright light from a south-facing window, but not so much it scorches the leaves. They need high humidity, so place the pot in a tray of water and pebbles or mist the leaves daily.

Fresh and Spicy

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Not fond of heavy, floral scents? Herbs and other fragrant foliage houseplants can freshen up your rooms without making them smell like a flower shop.

Mint (Mentha genus)

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One of the best choices for giving your home a fresh, invigorating scent, mint plants are relatively easy to grow. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are the two most popular choices, but Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) is another good option, particularly if you have limited space.

Plant your mint in a wide container to give the roots room to spread. Put it near a sunny window in a warm room and keep the soil moist. Mints are thirsty plants and often need three or four waterings a week.

Citrus (Citrus genus)

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Lemon, orange, tangerine, kumquat, and other citrus trees produce a fresh, tart fragrance, especially when in bloom. After three or four years, you might even see some fruit. The trick to growing them indoors is plenty of bright light and sufficient humidity. Ideally, that means eight to 12 hours of sun, which in most climates will mean providing a grow light.

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cinerea)

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This iconic Australian tree is remarkably easy to grow as a houseplant. It emits a distinctive fresh, slightly minty aroma and the blue-gray foliage suits any decor style.

This plant needs full sun and protection from drafts. Despite originating in an arid land, eucalyptus needs its soil kept consistently moist or allowed to dry only slightly between waterings. It’s a fast grower. You’ll need to prune it regularly to keep it short and bushy, or you’ll end up with a tall, gangly tree. Even with pruning, you might eventually need to transplant it outdoors where possible.

Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)

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Cuban oregano isn’t a true oregano or from Cuba, but its oregano-like scent recalls the savory aroma of Mediterranean cuisine. It favors medium light and hot, dry conditions and can’t stand soggy roots. Even so, it requires well-drained soil that’s kept slightly moist.

Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis)

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Another pungent herb, sweet bay is a slow-growing plant that will provide fragrance without taking up much space. Give it well-drained soil and water deeply when the soil becomes slightly dry, but never let it dry out completely. Over winter, let it go dormant by placing it in a cool (40 to 60 degrees) room. It needs little light and water for this period. Come spring, gradually acclimate it to light and provide full sun.

Watch out for scale insects, which suck out sap and cause the plant’s leaves and the surface under the plant to feel sticky. If these bugs show up, horticultural oil usually gets rid of them.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

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With its sweet-tart scent reminiscent of lemon drops, this plant is known as a natural stress reliever. The leaves are also useful for tea or garnishing desserts. It needs at least four hours of full sun daily and does better with a grow lamp. Less light than that and the plant becomes spindly. Keep the soil consistently moist, watering when the soil’s surface starts to dry.

Fragrant houseplants keep your home smelling good without the heavy, chemical scent air fresheners often bring. Better yet, some of them can help spice up your cooking, too. While these plants can all thrive indoors given the right conditions, some are rather finicky, so check up on their requirements before you buy.

Posted on Categories Interior

The Pros and Cons of Mahogany Flooring

African Mahogany Flooring
Photo Credit: Boa-Franc

The very word “mahogany” evokes images of beautifully furnished luxury homes and with good reason. As a flooring wood, mahogany’s rich color and smooth grain lend an air of sophistication to a room. As attractive as it is, though, the color can be a little unpredictable and the many types of wood called mahogany make shopping somewhat complicated.

Pros: Outstanding Coloring and Durability

Mahogany Floor in Living Room
Photo Credit: Boa-Franc

Although best known for its striking color, mahogany is also a tough wood that stands up well to foot traffic, and it’s not as expensive as you might expect.

Warm Color

New mahogany flooring starts out a pale tan, but as it’s exposed to UV light (sunlight) over time, it darkens to a deep reddish-brown with variations of honey, bronze, and dark brown. You won’t need to worry about this floor fading in sunlight. The grain is distinct, but typically straight and close, giving the floor a consistent appearance. Mahogany with ribbon-like interlocked grain is also fairly common. This grain produces intricately rippling color shifts across the floor.

The wood takes a polish easily, making it well suited to modern decor styles. With less polish, the deep color of mahogany is right at home in a rustic cabin setting.

Hard and Durable  

Genuine South American mahogany (Swietenia spp.) is comparable to cherry in hardness, making it moderately durable. Other types of mahogany, such as African mahogany (Khaya spp.) are harder than some oak, walnut, and even maple species, so despite its refined appearance, it can stand up to a lot of wear with minimal scratches and dings. That makes it ideal for the living room, kitchen or other high-traffic area as well as for homes with active kids or large dogs.

Both South American and African mahogany species are resistant to water damage, fungi, and pests. In particular, they’re known as termite-resistant woods, so they’re practical choices if you live in an area where these insects pose a major threat.

Mahogany flooring planks are typically quarter sawn from logs, which gives them greater stability with less risk of warping or cupping compared to more common plain sawn planks.

Easy to Work With

For a hard wood, mahogany is relatively easy to work. It machines easily, although there’s some risk of chipping with mahogany that has an interlocked grain. The wood can be glued without issues, is easy to sand, and takes stain well.

Easy to Care For

Once a week or whenever the floor looks dusty, sweep it with a dry mop or clean it with a soft-bristled vacuum cleaner. Spot clean as needed with a microfiber cloth or other soft, lint-free cloth dampened in a solution of 1 cup warm water and 2 Tbsp. white vinegar. For stubborn spots, add 1 or 2 Tbsp. liquid dish soap. Avoid abrasive cleaners, which can damage the finish.

Moderately Priced

Compared to other exotic hardwoods, mahogany is moderately priced. The cost runs from $14 to $30 per board foot. On average, genuine mahogany costs more than oak or maple, but less than teak and walnut. Not all mahogany flooring is “genuine,” though, and similar woods are often sold as mahogany for even less.

Cons: Staining and Shopping Challenges

Mahogany Floor Being Installed
© Brian Creswick / Adobe Stock

Mahogany’s color changes can pose some problems, and this wood isn’t the best choice if you’re on a tight budget.

Color Problems

You won’t really know exactly what color your mahogany floor will be until it’s been in place for a few years. The rate at which mahogany darkens and how dark it gets depends in part on how much sunlight hits it. In a sunny room, the wood will darken faster. This can become a problem when areas under rugs or furniture don’t darken as much as exposed areas. Rearranging your furniture now and then helps prevent this.

The wood’s color changes also make it harder to choose stain because a stain color that looks deep and rich early on might prove too dark after a year or so.

As with any dark-toned wood, mahogany shows dust, crumbs, and pet hair easily. While maintaining a mahogany floor isn’t difficult, sweeping can turn into a daily task if you want to keep your floor looking spotless.

Not for Low Budgets

While genuine mahogany is more affordable than many exotic hardwoods, it’s not a cheap flooring wood. This is partly due to the wood’s status as a threatened species. For a lower cost alternative with similar properties, consider khaya, sapele or toona wood, which are all in the mahogany family, or a more widely available wood such as cherry.  

Confusing Terminology

Flooring retailers have been known to use the name mahogany for many different wood species, but not all those woods have the same characteristics. Choose the wrong one, and you might be disappointed with the appearance and durability.

Mahogany trees belong to the family Meliaceae, which is divided into more than 50 genera. The wood known as genuine mahogany comes from three species of trees in the genus Swietenia. For centuries, the preferred species was Swietenia macrophylla, also known as Honduran mahogany or Brazilian mahogany.

Due to demand, however, this species became threatened and is now under international trade restrictions with export strictly controlled. Much of the genuine mahogany available is grown on sustainable plantations located around the world.

More commonly on the American market today, you’ll find khaya wood, particularly Khaya invorensis. This group of trees, also called African mahogany, is in the same family as genuine mahogany, but in a different genus. Its coloring and durability are comparable to those of genuine mahogany, so it’s an ideal alternative.

Mahogany’s deep, warm color give it a timeless appeal, and its durability makes it perfect for a busy family home. Although it’s not great for a tight budget, it’s a modestly priced option if you’re looking for luxury flooring. On the downside, age-related color changes mean there’s a chance the final color of your floor will be darker than you hoped.

Posted on Categories Flooring

The Homeowner’s Guide to Firescaping

Firefighter Spraying Water on Wildfire
© toa555 / Adobe Stock

It might not seem like a few plants could do much to protect your home from a wildfire, but if carefully chosen and arranged, plants can be your home’s best defense. Good firescaping, or landscaping as a fire defense, can stave off a wildfire for up to several days.

How Firescaping Works

Wildfire Reaching the Edge of a Neighborhood
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Firescaping is landscaping with the goal of preventing a wildfire from damaging your house. It’s based on designing firesafe zones, choosing fire-resistant plants, and creating spaces that slow down or stop a spreading fire by depriving it of fuel.

Some properties are harder to firescape than others. A house on a flat site surrounded by hardpan desert with few plants doesn’t need much additional firescaping.

On the other hand, if your home sits at the top of a slope facing into prevailing winds and you’re surrounded by dense conifer forest or chaparral, it’s worth putting some serious effort into your firescaping. Hot smoke flows uphill, and a fire can spread twice as fast up a 30 percent slope compared to flat ground. Add in fir trees or creosote bushes, both of which burn well, and it’s easy to see why such a site should be firescaped with care.

Basic Firescaping Zones

Active Forest Fire
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On the outskirts of a property, firescaping is meant to slow the spread of fire. Close to the house, it should stop the fire altogether. To achieve these goals, firescapes are divided into two zones:

Zone 1 – This is usually the entire area within 30 feet of the house, but in highly fire-prone locations, it can extend up to 50 feet. In this zone, you’ll want to remove all dead or dry plants, keep tree branches trimmed back, create gravel or rock gardens, and plant only highly fire-resistant plants.

Zone 2 – The is the area from 30 to 50 feet from the house. Here you have a little more flexibility in what you plant, but you still need to choose plants that are somewhat fire-resistant, keep shrubs thinned, and keep tree limbs trimmed to at least 10 feet off the ground.

More than around 50 feet from your home, the focus should be on controlling erosion and promoting a diversity of native plants. Ideally, any approaching wildfire should die out or slow down dramatically here.

The Principles of Firescaping

Forest Fire and Dense Smoke
© Brais Seara / Adobe Stock

Following some basic guidelines will help you create a fire-resistant landscape even if you’re not an expert gardener. Choose plants that won’t add fuel to an oncoming fire, space your planting beds to prevent fire from spreading, and keep your landscape clean and healthy to help it stand up to heat.

Keep Fuel Away from the House

Pine Forest Fire
© Lumppini / Adobe Stock

In Zone 1, near your house or other structures, landscaping choices are critical. Within 5 feet of your house, use only non-combustible material such as pavers or gravel and low-growing, fire-resistant plants such as turf grass or flowers. Keep composted wood chips out of this area. This material smolders rather than burns and can pose a fire hazard you don’t notice until it’s too late.

Anything you plant elsewhere in Zone 1 should be highly fire-resistant. These plants might burn up completely, but they don’t create flames that could spread. They also catch and extinguish firebrands, or burning material falling from elsewhere.

Focus on native plants that have evolved to withstand the wildfires in your area. Choose low-growing species that retain water and contain little oil or resin. Deciduous trees, which hold more water and provide less fuel than evergreens, are good bets. Slow-growing plants with moist, soft leaves are better than fast growers with leathery leaves.

A few good picks are turf grass, most vegetables, cacti and succulents, periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), and oleander (Nerium oleander). Ice plant (Aizoaceae) is a particularly good succulent choice.

For Zone 2, try California lilac (Ceanothus), ivy geranium (Pelargonium peltatum), sage (Salvia officinalis), yucca, and lantana.

Avoid both conifer and broadleaf evergreens, particularly pines, spruce, fir, cypress, juniper, rhododendron, and eucalyptus. The oils and resins these trees produce make excellent hot-burning fuel. Ornamental grasses and climbing plants, particularly honeysuckle, are best avoided.

So are scented plants, which get their scent from volatile oils that ignite easily. Even some palms, such as Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), and date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) are too flammable to be used in firescaping.

Give Your Plants Space

Where you put each type of plant is as important as the plant species itself. Plant trees such that when they reach their mature height, their canopies will be at least 10 feet apart and their limbs at least 10 feet away from your chimney, the roofs of smaller buildings, and power lines.

Create island planting beds with plenty of space in between. This helps slow the spread of fire. Keep vertical layers of plants well separated to prevent “fuel ladders,” where flames spread from shorter plants to taller ones. For example, use groundcover plants under trees rather than shrubs or tall flowers.

To add beauty to your landscape and help it withstand fire, apply a 3-inch layer of mulch to your flowerbeds and around trees and shrubs. Mulch holds moisture in the soil, which slows down the spread of fire. It also controls soil temperatures and weeds, so plants stay healthier and will be less likely to burn. Only non-combustible materials are safe with 5 feet of the house, but outside that, other common mulches such as pine bark or leaf litter are acceptable.

Find out where firefighters would access your property if need be and keep that area clear of vegetation.

Create Fuel Breaks

A vital component in every firescape design, “fuelbreaks” are buffer zones designed to deprive a spreading fire of fuel in order to slow its spread. Any area with little combustible material can work.

Functional hardscaping features such as masonry patios, driveways, and walkways are often the most practical options. A lawn is a reasonably good firebreak, but if turf grass is too thirsty for your drought-prone area, try a groundcover or low-growing native grass instead. These are easier to keep green throughout the fire season.

Beyond this, a little creativity goes a long way. Consider creating a rock garden with a few artfully arranged boulders surrounded by gravel mulch or an artificial dry streambed. A line of riprap can also work.

If your home could use a little more privacy as well as fire protection, build a wall made of brick, cement or another non-combustible material. Water features, such as ponds and streams, are also helpful for stopping fires. A simple reflecting pool could go a long way toward protecting your home.

While bare ground does slow down fire, it’s not recommended in firescaping because it contributes to erosion.

Keep it Green

A healthy landscape is less vulnerable to fire. To keep yours healthy, regularly remove debris on the ground such as fallen leaves and branches. Trim back tree branches or other plants that threaten to overhang your roof. Prune your trees and shrubs using the approach recommended for the species. Incorrect pruning or worse, shearing, causes plants to produce faster, but weaker growth, making them more flammable.

Keep your landscape well irrigated. Drip irrigation, while environmentally friendly, doesn’t keep plants’ leaves wet enough to resist heat. When a wildfire is approaching, you might not have the water pressure you need to wet down your planting areas, so water regularly. If frequent droughts in your area make this impractical, base your landscape on features that don’t need much watering, such as rock gardens.

An approaching wildfire is always worrying, but if you take the time to firescape your property, you’ll have less to worry about. Choose low-fuel native plants, get creative with non-combustible materials such as pavers and gravel, and keep up on maintenance and you can have a landscape that’s beautiful, drought-resistant, and protects your home from wildfire.

Posted on Categories Yard

The Pros and Cons of Rubber Mulch

Blue and Green Rubber Mulch
Photo Credit: Jason Taellious

Rubber might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of mulch, but this material’s been gaining popularity for a number of reasons. It’s long-lasting, stays in place, and doesn’t attract bugs. Because this mulch is made from recycled tires, though, there are some concerns about how healthy it is for your soil and plants.

Pros: A Low-Maintenance Way to Protect Plant Roots

Bags of Rubber Mulch
Photo Credit: Birdies100

Rubber mulch will stay in place for years to insulate plant roots from heat and cold, keep down weeds, and discourage pests.

Requires Little Maintenance

Because it breaks down so slowly, rubber mulch will look much the same year after year even with next to no maintenance. While some cheaper dyed mulches might fade, many brands are rated to keep working and looking good for at least 10 years. Unlike with most organic mulches, you won’t have to replace rubber mulch every year or two, so you’ll save both time and money.

Won’t Drift Away

Rubber mulch is heavy enough that it won’t easily float or blow away. If your planting bed becomes flooded from rain or over-enthusiastic watering, pine straw and wood chips are likely to float and drift so much you’ll need to rake the mulch back into place. Strong winds and leaf blowers can do the same to lightweight organic mulches. If you live in a storm-prone area or you use wind-generating garden equipment, rubber mulch can save you some cleanup work.

Doesn’t Attract Pests

Mulch made from wood tends to attract pests such as carpenter ants, termites, and wasps, which limits where you can use these mulches. Pests like these avoid rubber mulch. You can safely use rubber mulch near your home’s foundation or around outbuildings without worrying you’ll end up with termites. In fact, rubber mulch helps protect your buildings from wood-eating pests, so you can use less pesticide. 

Insulates Well

In summer, mulch protects your plants’ roots from heat and dehydration, while in winter, it defends them from frost. As a highly effective insulator, rubber mulch is one of the best materials you can use if your goal is to protect your soil and plant roots from the elements. If you live in a hot climate, avoid dark colors of rubber mulch, which absorb heat and can overheat the soil.

Inhibits Weed Growth

Holding weeds down is one of the main purposes of mulch, and rubber mulch does this job reasonably well. While it’s a viable solution to weed control, it’s not quite as effective in the long term as organic mulches.

To really control weed growth with rubber mulch, you’ll need a layer of at least 2 inches or preferably 4 inches. Rubber mulch won’t hinder seeds and young weeds already in the soil, so remember to weed or till the soil before you mulch.

Improves Safety in Play Areas

The density and resilience of rubber mulch make it perfect for protecting children from falls in play areas. Rubber mulch is clean, so it won’t stain your kids’ clothes, and it stays in place so your kids won’t be tracking it into the house. Just make sure you get the wire-free variety. For effective shock absorption, install a layer of at least 6 inches.

Cons: High Purchase Costs and Potential Soil Contamination

Macro Shot of Rubber Mulch
© Torian / Adobe Stock

Despite being a recycled material, rubber mulch doesn’t come cheap. What’s more, some of the chemicals and metals used in the tires that make rubber mulch are a potential source of soil contamination.

Costs More Up Front

Rubber mulch is considerably more expensive than organic mulch. Most brands will run you more than $10 per cubic foot, and some are as much as $15 per cubic foot. Then add in the cost of the landscaping fabric you’ll need to lay under this mulch.

To compare, pine straw typically costs around $5 or $6 per cubic foot, and naturally colored wood chips can be had for around $2 per cubic foot, although dyed varieties are more expensive. Straw costs even less than these, but you’ll need to replace it every year.

While rubber mulch does last longer, it takes around six to eight years for the average homeowner to recoup their investment. If you don’t mind using the same rubber mulch that long, it’s an economical option. Just beware of cheap rubber mulches, which are often made from radial tires and might still have bits of wires inside. Wire-free mulch costs more.

Poses a Minor Fire Hazard

Because rubber mulch contains petroleum, it’s more likely than organic mulch to catch fire from a flame or heat source, such as a cigarette butt or tipped-over garden lantern. If it does, it will burn faster and hotter, be harder to extinguish, and release thick smoke laden with harmful chemicals. While there’s little risk of your mulch catching fire, it’s something to consider if you’re looking for a material that’s safe to use around open flames.

Difficult to Remove

Before you use rubber mulch, you’ll need to lay down landscaping fabric to keep the mulch separate from the soil. That’s because once chunks of rubber mulch get mixed in with the soil, they’re nearly impossible to remove unless you pick them out by hand. In fact, you might need to remove the entire top layer of soil to get all the rubber out.

This makes weeding harder, too. Rubber mulch doesn’t biodegrade quickly and doesn’t add nutrients to the soil, so you can’t till it into the soil to get rid of weeds. If weeds pop up, you’ll need to pull them by hand.

Can Release Harmful Metals and Chemicals

When heated by the sun, rubber mulch can release chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not only do these fumes often smell bad, they’re also bad for your health. If you live in a climate with hot summers, avoid using rubber mulch around seating areas where you don’t want the smell of hot rubber.

Worse yet, this mulch can leach heavy metals such as aluminum, zinc, cadmium, and chromium into the soil and eventually the groundwater. In particular, rubber from tires contains a high level of zinc oxide, which can accumulate in your plants and eventually kill them. This is even more of a problem in areas where the soil is already rich in zinc, so it’s a good idea to have your soil tested before you apply rubber mulch.

Durable, easy to care for, and an excellent insulator, rubber mulch is a practical choice for beds with mature shrubs or trees. Its soft, springy texture also makes it useful in children’s play areas. For flower and vegetable beds, though, it’s less than ideal. Smaller plants are more vulnerable to the chemicals and metals rubber mulch releases into the ground and vegetables can absorb these contaminants.

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