Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on harvesting your own lumber for homebuilding, a wondrous woodland plant for soggy backyards, and more.
Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams
Our asphalt driveway is badly damaged by frost heaves. Almost all the other houses in the area have gravel driveways. Should we renew the asphalt or install gravel instead?
WALTER RONTEN, SPRUCE HEAD
I realize you asked about the winter implications of a driveway, but have you considered the well-water implications of a driveway? Prior to paving, rain and melting snow soaked into open ground, where resident microbes cleaned it of impurities before it joined a deep aquifer or migrated into a pond or stream. Now, water gathers all manner of auto-related gunk from pavement, then flows onto a diminished patch of soil, or down a storm drain. More pavement begets more water pollution, and less water to recharge underground aquifers.
So gravel might seem like the sustainable choice. However, let us now consider the economic implications of running a snowblower up and down a gravel driveway. Whang! Bang! Clang! Rocks picked up by the blades are whipped out of the chute at a velocity that tattoos nearby vehicles and vinyl siding. (As for shoveling, catching the blade on one frozen pebble can dislocate more of your vertebrae than you knew you had.)
My own next driveway will be made with “permeable pavers.” These are masonry pavers with holes in or between them. The best of both worlds, they shed no deadly projectiles, but also direct water into the ground where it belongs.
We’re building a home next year. Given the high cost of lumber, would it be cheaper to harvest trees from our land to use in the construction?
KIMBERLY CALHOUN, NORWAY
The pick-your-own lumber plan has merit, if you can coordinate the various steps. You’ll need to find a logger who knows which trees to cut. You’ll need a sawmill within 100 miles or so that will cut your trees into useful shapes and sizes. And unless you have a spare year to let nature dry your lumber, you’ll need a kiln to accelerate the process. (Some local mills have them, or you can make a low-tech kiln on your building site.)
But local lumber is in fact saving people money right now, says Jim Carville, of Lisbon Falls, who owns a portable sawmill. “I’ve sawed out three houses this year alone, and I haven’t done one in maybe eight years before that,” he says. Carville says the catch is that building inspectors like to see a “grade stamp” on lumber, certifying its quality. Homemade lumber won’t be stamped. So you may want to start by talking to your code enforcement officer about workarounds. Among them: Build a timber-frame structure, because large timber doesn’t need grade stamping.
I have read about drought and wells going dry in Maine. How bad is it?
NEAL CASPERSEN, PENSACOLA, FLORIDA
Wells are quirky individuals. Depending on your location, a well may tap into groundwater a few feet underground; or 200 feet down in a gravelly aquifer; or 600 feet down in fractured bedrock. For each source, the time needed to renew the well’s water supply can be days, months, or even millennia. Most of the recent reports of dry wells come from shallow types that are more sensitive to short-term fluctuations in rainfall. Deeper wells tap into “older” water that may take centuries to recharge. These are less likely to feel the effects of one summer’s drought at the earth’s surface.
Maine is actually getting more precipitation than it used to. But only about 10 to 20 percent of it sinks into the earth to replenish groundwater. And now, higher temperatures, and wider variation in the amount of water per storm, may be reducing that portion further. For additional geeky reading, check out maine.gov’s well database, which reports the depth and flow rate of nearly 140,000 wells across the state.
What are the best native plants for our wet backyard? Are there ones that soak up excess water?
KATE VOSE, FALMOUTH
I’ve been waiting for an excuse to wax poetic about jewelweed! Seriously: Jewelweed is one of the most beautiful little flowers. You walk by it all the time in damp areas. Its delicate, mint-shaped leaves tend to hide the flowers. But glimpses of golden-orange will draw you in. Looking closer, you’ll discover a blossom as shapely as an orchid and as brilliant as a snippet of the sun. It is a well-known fact that mouse brides carry jewelweed bouquets.
Return to the patch a few weeks later and bring every child you know. Now, hunt among the foliage for the cigar-shaped seedpods. When you poke a fat, ripe one, you’ll discover why the plant also answers to “Popweed.” If you wander accidentally into poison ivy, counteract the toxin by rubbing crushed jewelweed over your skin.
This is a full-service plant, delivering beauty, medicine, entertainment, and lawn-drying services. Maybe. For lawn-drying, I honestly don’t know if it’s any better than the other swampy natives: bee balm; blazing star; coneflower; Joe Pye weed; obedient plant; violets. But . . . jewelweed! I’ve never had a wet-enough yard to try transplanting it. The seeds (Impatiens capensis) are available online.
Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at geekrealtyblog.com.