Tuesday, July 15, 2014

UX Today: Twitter's Mobile Site Sign In Form

I'm starting a new blog series, UX Today, where I will document and analyze usability issues I encounter online and in the physical world.

Today's usability issue comes from Twitter's mobile website sign in page.

login page for twitter.com with username and password fields
Twitter's mobile site sign in page
My username was pre-populated because I have used the site on my phone before. I thought my password was also pre-populated, because the placeholder text Twitter uses in the password field is a series of dots, which look just like an obfuscated password.

a password field with a series of dots as placeholder text
Twitter's password placeholder text

Thinking my password was already entered into the password field, I tapped the "Sign in" button. The page refreshed and I wasn't signed in, but I didn't see why, so I tapped "Sign in" again, thinking the site had a glitch.

What actually happened was that I had not entered my password, and the error message on the page was located at the top in a light gray text, hardly noticeable, and resulting in frustration while I tried to figure out what was wrong.

screen shot of a login form with error text at the top
Error message at the top of the form
There are two easy fixes here that Twitter should make:
  1. Remove the dots as placeholder text from the "Password" field. They are not necessary and cause confusion. Placeholder text in form fields are harmful because it makes it hard for users to know what information they have already entered.
  2. Move the error message next to the field where the error occurred and make it obvious. By placing it at the top of the form, away from the "Password" field, and making it a light gray, it isn't obvious for users.
In working on a quick mock-up of these improvements, I realized that Twitter developers likely added the placeholder text so that users would know where to type. Without the placeholder text, it's not obvious. That said, adding placeholder text isn't the best solution.

a mock-up of a sign in form for the Twitter mobile site with Password error text next to the form field
Mock-up of changes Twitter could make to the mobile Sign In form

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Adventures in Building a Rain Garden

When I bought my house last year, I knew I wanted to incorporate green measures like xeriscaping and rain barrels. Little did I know how that would cascade into multiple projects! The week after I moved in, Austin experienced the historic Halloween Flood of 2013 and according to the closest rain gauge in the Flood Early Warning System, our area received 7-8 inches of rain in just a few hours.

I noticed that there were a couple of inches of water in the yard and really started to worry my new house was about to be flooded, argh! Thankfully that did not happen and it got me thinking more broadly about stormwater management. Not long after, I saw a flier in the library—Earth-wise Guide to Rain Gardens—and soon after read a great book explaining the ins and outs of stormwater management—Rain Gardens: Managing Water Sustainably in the Garden and Designed Landscape.

The roof on a small house like mine can fill four 55 gallon rain barrels with a little as 0.33" of rain. In order to even use the rain barrels, we had to install gutters. With only two rain barrels this meant we'd need to direct the rest of the water somewhere. Off the back porch, we installed another section of gutter to direct the downspout into the rain garden. The rain barrel overflow would be directed into the garden as well.

Project Description

Build a rain garden to capture and direct rainwater, including overflow from a rain barrel.

Time: It tooks us a combined total of about 15 days over several months (January to April)
Cost: $150 for gravel and plants

Completed rain garden in Austin, Texas

What is a rain garden?

According to Grow Green, a rain garden is a shallow, vegetated depression designed to absorb and filter runoff from hard (impervious) surfaces like roofs, sidewalks, and driveways. Rain gardens are usually planted with colorful native plants and grasses. They not only provide an attractive addition to the yard, but also help to conserve water and protect our water quality.

How does a rain garden help?

As areas become increasingly urbanized, native landscapes are replaced with impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. Stormwater quickly runs off these hard surfaces, picking up pollutants from the land and carrying them to our creeks. This rapidly flowing water also increases the chances of flooding and erosion.

The goal of a rain garden is to keep water on the land. Rain gardens, with their shallow depressions, capture stormwater and provide for natural infiltration into the soil. This provides water for the plants and helps maintain a constant flow of water in our streams through groundwater. They also help filter out pollutants including fertilizers, pesticides, oil, heavy metals, and other chemicals that would otherwise reach our creeks through storm drains or drainage ditches. By reducing the quantity of water that runs off your property, rain gardens help lower the risk of flooding and erosion.

Supplies Needed for This Project

The lists below reflect what we used for our rain garden design.


  • Large, flat limestone rocks for the border
  • 5/8" river gravel (2 yards) for mulch
  • Native, drought-tolerant plants


  • Shovel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Gas-powered tiller

Create a Rain Garden in Six Easy Steps

Well, that's what the rain garden fact sheet claims but depending on the size of the garden and the grade and soil composition of your yard, the time and effort needed will vary greatly. My goal for writing this blog post is to show a walkthrough of what we did following the Grow Green project outline.

Step 1: Find the Right Location

The right location for our garden was cut and dry. We have a relatively flat area behind the house where water tends to collect. It gets full sun during the summer and partial sun in the winter. It's also located such that we could easily direct the gutter on our porch and the rain barrel overflow into it.

An important step when determining your garden location is to call 811 and find out where any underground utilities like gas, water, electric, and cable lines are running on your property so that you don't accidently cut them. Call before you dig! It's a free service.

Electric and cable lines marked with spray paint

Step 2: Test the Soil

Most of the soil in this area is composed of caliche (a kind of clay) and rocks formed from limestone. If your yard is located on a bunch of shallow rock, a rain garden won't work for you. You need about 12" of loose soil for water to absorb effectively.

To test our soil, I dug two 6" wide by 6" deep pilot holes on either side of where I wanted the garden to be. You then fill the holes with water and see how long it takes the water to drain. Lucky for us, it took about two hours so our location was good to go.

Pilot hole to test drainage

Step 3: Calculate the Size and Shape of Your Garden

The fact sheet provides a formula for calculating the size, in square feet, a rain garden needs to be to hold 1" of runoff based on the measurements of the roof area. Our back roof and porch came out to 658 ft. sq. which calculates to a 110 ft. sq. rain garden. We experimented with the shape using spray paint (bad idea) and bricks (good idea) until we came up with a shape we liked that was roughly the right size—19 ft. x 6 ft. more or less.

We also made sure that the rain barrel would have ample space and that we would still be able to walk comfortably between the house and the garden and the porch and the garden (not visible to the right) and be able to get the lawn mower around everything.

Rain garden shape before construction

Step 4: Rain Garden Construction

Ooo boy, time to get dirty. We made this a lot harder than it needed to be because we wanted to transplant all the turf from the rain garden area to low spots around the back porch that had been eroded by rain over the years. This extended the project timeline by a lot. After we stopped digging and started using a tiller, things went very fast.

Digging out the garden takes a long time

Because you have to dig out 6" for the rain garden to be able to hold water, we had a lot of soil piled up and covered with a tarp—about 2.5 cubic yards worth! We put an ad on Craigslist for free fill dirt and have gotten rid of some of it, but keep in mind that you will have to find a place for all the dirt.

Tillers are worth every penny

While the soil was nice and loose from tilling, we had to grade the area. One side of the garden is about 6" higher than the other side because of a slight slope in the yard. The important thing is to get the floor of the garden level to 6" at the lowest point so that the water can spread out evenly. At this point, we also lined up the rain barrel overflow and gutter downspout to drain into the garden.

Step 5: Plant Selection and Installation

I selected native, drought-tolerant plants for the rain garden based on some tried and true favorites of mine: salvia bushes, lantana, red yucca, fountain grass, and feather grass. Some of these stay green year round and all are perennial. I used eight plants spaced out so that when they reach maturity, they have enough room. We threw down some leftover garden soil and crushed glass from our pallet planter project as a base.

Luna checks out the rain garden

Next, we filled the garden up with some 5/8" river gravel to act as a mulch. Originally we were going to use crushed glass, but I did not like the look. We went with the 5/8" instead of pea gravel to discourage the cats from using the garden as a litter box, which they did while it was dirt. After adding the gravel, we positioned the border rocks around the edges and filled the spaces with more gravel. We were lucky and got the border rocks for free from Craigslist, saving us hundreds.

Step 6: Maintenance

There's not much to it so far. We had our first big rain storm of nearly 4" over two days and the garden filled and drained twice. I've had to do a little weeding and edging but it has been nearly maintenance free. Through some questionable math, I determined it has about a 300 gallon capacity.

Rain garden full after 1.5" of rain

That's it! For more information, check out the City of Austin's rain garden site. If you're in Austin, you can also check out installations of small-scale green infrastructure around the city. I'll end this post with a short video of our rain garden at work during a storm.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How To Make a Stand for a Rain Barrel

We recently bought two rain barrels for our house and realized we needed stands both for elevation and stability.

Project Description

This how-to details the step-by-step process for constructing a rain barrel stand out of salvaged pallets for basically no cost. You can certainly use store-bought or nicely milled lumber depending on the look you're going for.

Time: 3 hours
Cost: $8.47 for a box of screws

Completed rain barrel stands; design 1 left; design 2 right

We ended up making two different stand designs using the same materials. The first one has the barrel sitting at the top of the stand with a 1" lip to prevent the barrel from sliding off. The second one drops the barrel 6" below the top of the stand to provide more stability against being blown off the stand when it's empty. I'll reference both designs in the walk through.

Supplies Needed for This Project

The lists below reflect what we used for our stands for 55 gallon plastic barrels.

Measure your barrel and adjust the lumber cuts as needed to accommodate the size of your barrel and your elevation needs.


  • Lumber from pallets
    • Short supports: 6 pieces of 2x3 boards cut to 22"
    • Long supports: 6 pieces of 2x3 boards cut to 25"
    • Legs: 8 pieces of 2x4 boards cut to 24"
    • Slats: 5 pieces of 2x4 boards cut to 22"
  • A box of 3" decking screws


  • Wood saw; we used a compound miter saw
  • Measuring tape
  • Square
  • Drill; we used both a corded and cordless
  • Large C-clamps (3)
  • Pencil


These are the steps we took to complete this project. Please modify to fit your own project. :)

Step 1: Decide on the stand size and design

  1. What size stand do you need to accommodate your barrel?
    Design 1: Turn the barrel over and measure the diameter of the bottom; this is the minimum width that the inside of your stand will need to be; the bottom of our barrel is 18" and the inside of our stand is 22" square.

    This is reflected by the short cut which is 22". The measurement of the long cut is [short cut] + 3". (Note: A 2x3 is actually 1.5" x 2.5"!) So, you can pretty easily adjust these measurements as needed if your barrel is larger in diameter than 18".

    Design 2: Calculate the circumference of the barrel at the widest point where it will sit inside the stand. We measured the first ribbed ring on our barrel that sat below the spigot (so that the stand would not interfere with it) and got 67". Divide this by pi (3.14) to get the diameter; on our barrel this was 21.34" which still fit nicely inside the same 22" stand from design 1.

    For design 2: Measure the circumference 
  2. How tall does your stand need to be?
    If your rain barrel is on level ground and the area you need to water is at the same elevation or lower, then the height of 21" of this stand should be sufficient. However, if you plan to try and water anything uphill from your barrel, then this is probably not the stand design for you.
  3. What lumber do you want to use?The project time estimate does not take into account gathering materials. It took my partner a couple of hours to break down some large pallets and another hour to pull out the nails; but it saved us a lot of money.

    Removing nails from salvaged lumber

Step 2: Make all the lumber cuts

The number of boards and cuts will vary depending on the material you salvage or buy.  Lay out your boards and using a tape measure, mark the places for each cut. Then using a square, draw a straight line at each point.

We had several 93" 2x4s which is 3" shorter than a standard 8' board so we were able to get two legs (24") and two slats (22") from each board with the least amount of waste. For our 2x3s, we were able to get two long pieces (25") and two short pieces (22") with the least amount of waste.

Measure and mark the lumber for all cuts

I suggest labeling everything to keep your materials straight using leg, slat, long, or short on each piece as you cut.

Cut the lumber to size using a wood saw

Step 3: Assemble the legs

We decided to put two 2x4 pieces together instead of using 4x4s. Look over the eight leg pieces and decide which ones you want to face out and which ones should be hidden. (This matters more for salvaged wood that might look crappy.)

On four of the leg pieces, you'll need to mark the areas where the three side pieces will attach, as well as mark the screw holes for attaching the two pieces together. Decide which end is the top and which is the bottom of the leg and write that on the wood. Perform all measurements from the top to the bottom for consistency.

Design 1: Mark the following on each leg.
  • Mark a line 1" from the top; this is where the top lip will attach.
  • Mark a line 3.5" from the top; this is where the middle 2x3 side piece will attach.
  • Mark a line 18.5" from the top.
  • Mark a line 21" from the top; this is where the bottom 2x3 side piece will attach.
  • Measure the distance between the middle and bottom side pieces; on our legs it was 14.5". Mark three holes roughly equidistant in this space. We marked holes at 2", 7.5", and 12". 

Lines and holes for design 1

Design 2: Mark the following on each leg.
  • Mark a line 2.5" from the top; this is where the top 2x3 side piece will attach.
  • Mark a line 6" from the top.
  • Mark a line 8.5" from the top; this is where the middle side piece will attach.
  • Mark a hole between the first two side pieces.
  • Mark a line 18.5" from the top.
  • Mark a line 21" from the top; this is where the bottom 2x3 side piece will attach..
  • Measure the distance between the middle and bottom side piece; on our legs it was 10". Mark two holes roughly equidistant in this space. We marked holes at 3.25" and and 6.75".
Lines and holes on legs for design 2

Take one of the leg pieces you marked and sandwich it with an unmarked piece, then clamp them together using two C-clamps. Drill pilot holes at the three places marked on each leg. Use 3" screws to attach the 2x4s together. Do this for all four legs.

Design 1: Leg assembly

Step 4: Attach the short pieces to the legs

Using the lines marked on the legs in step 3, line up short pieces (22") on top of two legs, making sure that the nice sides of the legs are facing you. Attach one side piece at a time for stability.

For each side piece, mark and drill pilot holes first, then attach with two screws on each end of the side piece. Repeat for the other two legs.

Short side pieces attached to legs for design 2

Design 1: We attached the side pieces that create the top lip at the very end to make it easier to attach the slats (see step 7).

Step 5: Attach the long pieces to the legs

Place the two assembled sides from step 4 on their edges and line up long pieces (25") across the legs, attaching one at a time.

For each side piece, mark and drill pilot holes first, then attach with two screws on each end of the side pieces.

Design 2: Attach the long pieces to the frame

Once you have three sides of the frame together, flip it over and attach the final long pieces to complete the stand frame.

Design 1: completed stand frame minus top lip

Design 1: We attached the side pieces that create the top lip at the very end to make it easier to attach the slats (see step 7).

Step 6: Install the slats

Attach a slat to the legs on one side of the stand using two screws per leg on a diagonal for added support. Mark and drill pilot holes first. You might have to shave a little wood off the length of your slats depending on how tightly the frame fits together. Repeat on the other side.

Design 1: The slats should be flush with the top of the legs.

Design 2: The slats should be flush with the tops of the middle side supports.

Design 1: add the two side slats first

Measure and mark off three, equidistant 1.5" segments for the remaining three slats.

Measure and mark the center slats

For each slat, put the slat in place in the frame, then use a scrap piece of wood to clamp it in place and ensure it is level and even with the side slats. Measure and drill pilot holes and attach all three slats to one side of the frame. Then using the scrap piece of wood, clamp the slats in place on the other side of the frame and attach with screws.

Clamp slats in place to attach

Step 7 for Design 1: Add the top lip

Attach the remaining four side pieces to create the top lip using the same methods in steps 4 and 5.

Design 1: Completed stand

Voila! You're now ready to install your rain barrels on your stands. The reason we left 3" below the bottom slat is to allow for some leveling and anchoring into the dirt but if your stand will be on a flat surface like a deck or cement, you can lower this slat to meet your needs.

We used heat-treated and pressure-treated lumber so we're not too worried about protecting it (plus we like the "rough" look), but you can always paint or stain your stand for durability and to achieve the look you want.

Last but not least, we got to try out the rain barrels for the first time yesterday. They started to overflow after a mere 0.2" of rain.

Did this walk through work for you? What changes or improvements did you make?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How To Build a Raised-Bed Planter from Salvaged Materials

This project was inspired by a video from the Food is Free Project about how to create a salvaged pallet planter using a wicking bed method. I was quickly frustrated by the lack of detail in the plan and the implication that this is a quick and easy project. I hope this walk through will make the process less painful but also outline the amount of work! Two people are recommended for this project.

Project Description

This how-to details the step-by-step process for creating a raised-bed planter out of salvaged materials that wicks moisture from a reservoir underneath so more moisture is maintained in the soil, meaning you don't have to water as often.

We first made a small planter then created a double-sized one for more planting space. If you can find the materials and have the space, I would recommend creating the larger planter to give yourself more versatility in what you are able to grow.

Time: 6–8 hours
Cost: $0–$50

The time and cost of this project will vary widely depending on several factors namely what materials you already have on hand; how long it takes and how far you have to go to procure materials you don't have; and how much you have to pay for those items you don't have or can't get for free.

I will note in each step what our costs were.

planter boxes made of pallets, on a lawn in front of a fence
Completed double and single planters

Supplies Needed for This Project

The amount of supplies for this project is extensive and will vary based on what items you are able to salvage. The lists below reflect what we used for our planters.


  • single-sided pallets measuring 29" x 41" (small planter: 4; large planter: 6)
  • wood joiners—metal plates with teeth (small planter: 4; large planter: 6)
  • 4" decking screws (8-12)
  • short, galvanized screws (8-12)
  • a box of penny nails
  • large political sign, 4' x 8' or equivalent corrugated plastic material (small planter: 1; large planter: 2)
  • piece of heavy plastic large enough to cover the bottom of the planter and go up the sides 8"
  • crushed glass or gravel, enough to fill the bottom of the planter 6" high
  • 1" PVC pipe, two pieces, length dependent on the size of the planter
  • wicking material (cloth), like burlap sacks (small planter: 1; large planter: 2), an old bed sheet, towels, etc.
  • garden soil


  • large C clamps*
  • crowbar
  • hammer
  • measuring tape
  • corded drill
    • drill bit the size of your decking screws
    • 1/4" drill bit
    • 1" spade bit
  • extension cord*
  • wood saw
  • hacksaw
  • large T-square*
  • long level
  • box cutter
  • shovel
  • wheelbarrow or bucket
*helpful but optional


These are the steps we took to complete this project. Please modify to fit your own project. :)

Step 1

Figure out what size planter you want to make and stake out a spot in your yard that gets at least six hours of sunlight daily and is fairly level as the planter needs to be level. The less level the ground is to start, the more work you'll have to do to level out the ground.

Step 2

Procure your materials. See what you have lying around and what you need to get. The greatest time sink for us was finding materials we could salvage. The main component of the project is the pallets so start there. You can often find pallets being given away on Craigslist, but we ended up calling a local pallet company that sold used pallets for $2 each. When we showed up and explained our project, the guy gave us a whole stack of them for free.

I can't stress this part enough: Try to get pallets that are the same or very similar. This will make putting your planter together much easier and minimize or prevent having to make special cuts or adjustments to the frame.

Cost: Free, minus gas money to haul them back home

small trailer loaded with pallets and a man standing next to it
Getting our pallets from a pallet company

Step 3

Decide on the height you want for your planter box based on the pallets you procured. Our pallets had five horizontal boards and for the look and height we wanted, we needed to remove the bottom boards. This did two things: firstly it created "legs" for the planter box that we used later to anchor it into the ground; secondly, it provided a board we could re-use for the top of the planter (see step 6).

To remove the bottom boards, position a crowbar between the board and support, then use a hammer to jam the crowbar under the board to where you can start to pry off the board. Be careful because these boards tend to be brittle (pallets not being made of the best wood) and can easily crack. You'll need to do this in two to three places on each pallet.

As you remove each board, remove any nails or hammer them flat so they are out of the way. Set the boards aside.

Planter height of 21.5" after removing the bottom board

Optional step: Our pallets had two end boards and a middle support. We decided after building the small planter that the middle supports were not really necessary but they were impossible to remove. We wanted to avoid having to dig extra holes, though, for these legs so we cut them off, leaving just the four corner posts (six posts on the large planter).

Step 4

On flat, level ground (we used our garage), dry fit your planter box together up-side-down so that what's level is the top of the planter box; if you removed the bottom board in step 3, then the feet of your planter should be up. Figure out how the pallets best go together. Again, this will vary based on your materials. Once you have a general idea of how you want it, clamp the posts together at each corner. This isn't necessary but makes putting it together a lot easier.

Small planter dry fit and held with clamps

If building the large planter, Step 4.5: The long sides of your planter will require two pallets. The horizontal boards on the pallets extend past the supports so you will need to cut off this excess material on the pallets you'll be using for the sides. Removing this material allows the support posts to fit together flush. I recommend deciding which pallets you'll be joining for the sides then writing clearly which piece is which (front right, back left, etc.). Once you have marked the pallets, cut off the excess material with a hand saw. You should only be removing the overhang of one side of each of the four pallets that will make up your sides.

Center of the side for the large planter with excess wood removed so supports fit together flush

Step 5

Okay, so you have your planter essentially created but now you need to put it together. Using the 4" decking screws and a corded drill, secure the pallets at the corner posts (and the center posts along the sides for the large planter). You might need to drill pilot holes for the screws if the wood is particularly dense. We used two to three screws per post. For additional support, we used one wood joiner per post. This is a metal plate with teeth that is hammered into place where two pieces of wood come together. You can find these in the decking and fencing area of the hardware store.

Cost: $0.68 per wood joiner and $5 for a box of decking screws

Secure the pallets together with 4" decking screws

Wood joiner used for extra support

Step 6

It's time to flip the planter box over; you might need help with this, especially for the double planter. Everything should hold together. If not, check your screws and make any adjustments necessary. To give the planter box a finished look, we'll use the boards we removed in step 3 along the top of the planter. Lay the boards across the support posts, ensuring each board goes across the top of at least two posts. You might need to make a few small cuts with a wood saw if the boards hang off the end. Once you have the boards where you want, attach them with small screws, one per post. If any of the boards cracked or split, you can fix this with wood glue.

Cost: Free, we used screws we had already. You can try to salvage the nails that were used to attach these boards to the pallets, but we did not have success with that.

Finishing boards added to the top of the small planter

Step 7

Haul your planter outside and assess the ground where you want it to sit. Note any slope in the ground and use a long level (both front to back and side to side) atop the planter to determine where you'll need to level the ground, keeping in mind that the legs of the planter will likely be uneven.

Checking the planter with a long level; note the slope of our ground along the bottom

Start to clear the area where the planter will sit and dig the holes for the legs. You will want to put this dirt in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp. This step took us a couple of hours for both planters because of the slope of our ground and because it's just tricky to get something like this level.

It's very important the planter be level! The reservoir holding the water needs to be even to work consistently across the entire bed.

Clearing the ground and digging holes for the large planter

Step 8

Once the planter is in place, line the inside with corrugated plastic. This keeps dirt from coming out the gaps in the pallets and, along the ground, keeps grass and plants from poking at the plastic liner we'll be adding next. Using a large T-square or measuring tape, figure out what size pieces you'll need to cover each gap. I started by cutting pieces for the planter walls, then used what I had left over to cover the ground. Use small strips to wrap around the post bottoms to at least a height of 6" to protect the plastic liner from snagging on the wood. Use penny nails to affix the plastic strips to the pallets.

Note: Face any writing on the signs to the inside of the planter so that it is not visible through the gaps.

Cost: Free for the signs and $2.50 for a box of penny nails

Small planter lined with corrugated plastic

Step 9

Add the plastic liner. It's important to use one piece large enough to cover the bottom and sides of your planter to at least 7" up the wall. Ensure the plastic is in good shape without any rips, tears, or holes that would allow water to seep out. Once the liner is in the bottom, start adding some of the crushed glass to keep the liner in place. It can be helpful to have one person holding the walls of the liner and the other shoveling in material.

Planter with plastic liner and crushed glass

Cost: Free for the small planter as we were able to re-purpose an old shower curtain liner. $5 at Harbor Freight for the large planter to get a long enough tarp.

Step 10

Attach the liner securely to the planter using penny nails. If you have excess liner, roll it up before nailing in place. Add enough crushed glass to fill the bottom of the planter to 6".

Attach the liner with penny nails

Cost: $25 for 1/2 cubic yard of crushed glass from Gardenville as this is no longer available for free from the City of Austin. This amount of material is enough for one small planter and one large planter with some left over. It's much more cost effective to buy a large quantity, so consider this if you have a way to transport and store it.

1/2 cubic yard of crushed glass

Step 11

Figure out where you want the runoff from the reservoir to drain. Measure the width of the planter and cut a length of 1" PVC pipe to size using a hacksaw. With a drill, make 1/4" holes every 4" along the length of the pipe. 

Drill 1/4" holes in the drain pipe

Lay the pipe on top of the crushed glass, holes down, making sure there is a slight downward slope back to front, front being where the water will drain out of the planter. Mark where the pipe needs to exit the planter and cut a 1" hole using a spade bit. Stick the pipe out the hole about 1.5" to keep it from moving.

Cost: Free since my parents had some old pipe to donate

Drain pipe on top of the reservoir and exiting the planter

Step 12

Figure out where you want the fill hole to be located; this is the vertical pipe used to fill the reservoir from the top of the planter. We opted to place ours on one of the sides to where it would be secured in place by going through one of the finishing boards.

Measure the height of the inside of the planter from the top of the crushed glass to the top of the finishing board. Cut a length of 1" PVC pipe just slightly longer than this measurement using a hacksaw. Cut a 1" hole through the finishing board using a spade bit. Push the pipe down through this hole to the top of the crushed glass.

Fill pipe secured in place through the finishing board

Step 13

This is the easiest step! Lay down the cloth you've chosen as your wicking layer so that it covers the top of the reservoir.

Cost: $6.50 for three burlap sacks from Mangold Grain Co in Lacoste, enough for one small planter and one large planter

One burlap sack, cut open, used as the wicking layer

Step 14

Time to fill that planter up with dirt! We had grandiose ideas of filling the planter using soil from other areas of our yard, but that proved both time consuming and frustrating. Also, the quality of our topsoil isn't great. If you have the dirt and want to use it, that will cut down on your costs. We filled the planters about half way with dirt from the yard, starting with the wheelbarrow full of dirt from leveling the planters, then added some quality garden soil to finish.

Cost: $40 for one cubic yard of garden soil, though we used only a little over 1/2 yard to fill the remainder of both planters, leaving us extra soil for other projects.

Fill the planter with soil

Well that's about it. Something to keep in mind is that cats seem to really like fresh dirt. Our cats, and the neighborhood cats, started using our planters as litter boxes; we covered both planters with some old fencing to keep them out while our seedlings get established. We are in the process of building proper mesh covers so be on the look out for our next how-to.

Did this walk through work for you? What changes or improvements did you make?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Black Belt Test Paper

For my 1st Dan black belt test in Tae Kwon Do, I was required to write a paper about what it means to become a black belt and what inherent responsibilities it brings. I thought I would share that paper here. My test was on 11 January 2014 and I passed! :) This was the culmination of more than 4.5 years of preparation, a journey I started in 2005 and from which I took a break from 2009-2012 for graduate school. I returned at the beginning of 2013 with the goal of earning my black belt—I was a red belt at the time—by the end of the year.

What Becoming a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do Means to Me
10 January 2014

My journey on the way to earning my black belt has been long and full of obstacles. I started training in 2005 as an adult and it has been quite the balancing act between work, martial arts, and all the other inherent responsibilities of being an adult. In many ways, I think trying to do all of this at the same time has made me a better student because it requires a good amount of discipline and determination. I don’t like leaving things unfinished so while it has been nearly nine years since I first began training—with a four year break for graduate school—I returned a year ago to complete the foundational learning of my Tae Kwon Do experience.

This transition to black belt primarily symbolizes for me the very essence of perseverance and indomitable spirit. It’s not a trivial undertaking to learn and incorporate a new set of skills like TKD into one’s life. I am not as young as most students, not in as good physical shape and with much less energy, yet I strive to the best of my abilities (most days) to keep up and accomplish the same skills and tasks. I had a real crisis at red belt with comparing myself to other students and feeling I was not as “good” because of these differences. But with a lot of self reflection, I’ve come to accept that my best is just that—my best. There will always be those with more and those with less talent, drive, ability, or ambition to continue this journey. But for what I might lack in physical ability, I make up for in determination.

As I transition to a true student of TKD, I think the biggest responsibility lies in helping others with their journeys. Teaching skills is the easy part; that is, explaining how to do a particular kick, demonstrating self defense moves, or reciting academic knowledge is something all students are capable of as they move up the ranks. But, upon reaching advanced levels, students should hone an understanding and appreciation for encouraging less advanced students to try their bests and recognize their inherent skills and abilities and to appreciate themselves for undertaking this art. I can’t speak for everyone but I think in order to achieve this level of accomplishment requires maturity, self reflection, and mental fortitude that naturally leads one to want to help others and encourage them to continue learning.

I look forward to attaining the rank of first dan because, most simply, it is something I have wanted to accomplish. Yes, I have enjoyed the journey and learned a lot about myself along the way while internalizing and exploring the tenets of TKD; but while the transition into true student is important, I recognize that for myself the transition out of novice student is equally important. I feel accomplished. The idea of having a real “title” is pretty cool too. In many ways, this is even better than finishing graduate school because it’s something I just wanted to do. No professional reason, only personal. I did this for me.

Note: The title I now enjoy is "Jo-Kyo" which means first degree black belt.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How To Create a Soda Bottle Container

I remember the first time I saw a geocache container made from old soda bottle caps. I thought, "That is so cool! I want one." Then I forgot about it for several months until one day it dawned on me how to make one.

Project Description

This how-to is for making a container out of old soda bottle caps. My preference is to use three liter bottles because of the size, but two liter and 20oz bottles work too. I have experimented with several bottle types and I think the soda bottles work best because the plastic is stronger and the length of the bottle neck is larger, giving you more coverage for the bottom of the container.

Time: 15 minutes
Cost: If you can find soda bottles, this is free!

a gray soda bottle container made from two bottle caps
Soda bottle cache made from three liters

Supplies Needed for This Project

  • two plastic bottle caps of the same size and type and one plastic bottle
  • box cutter
  • scissors
  • super glue


These are the steps I took to complete this project. Please modify to fit your own project. :)

Step 1

Start by selecting what bottle type you want to use for your project. This how-to uses a three liter bottle. You need two caps and one bottle.

various sizes of plastic bottles and caps
Assorted bottle types 

Step 2

Cut the top off the plastic bottle as close as you can to the bottom of the neck. I find this is done most easily with a sharp box cutter but scissors can work too.

a box cutter being used to cut a plastic soda bottle
Cut the top off the bottle using a box cutter

the cut off top of a soda bottle and two soda bottle caps
Top of the bottle after being cut off

Step 3

This step is the trickiest. You now need to trim down the cut soda bottle so that the second bottle cap fits snugly over it. I find good scissors work best for this stage, but you can also continue to use a box cutter. Trim as much plastic as you can to remove the curved material, leaving just the bottle neck. Check periodically if your second bottle cap fits over the trimmed bottle neck. This will likely take several tries.

a trimmed soda bottle neck and excess material
Trimmed soda bottle neck

Step 4

Make sure the second bottle cap is fitting correctly onto the soda bottle neck before this step. At this point you want to apply a little bit of super glue to the outside of the soda bottle then screw on the second bottle cap. The glue is meant only to keep the second bottle cap from coming off; it does not make the container waterproof.

person applying super glue to a soda bottle neck
Apply super glue to the bottle neck

Side note: I have experimented with several types of glue for waterproofing and ease of use. Both Gorilla Glue and hot glue can do the trick, but they are messy and hard to get right to keep all water out. Most recently I have experimented with using caulk around the inside of the container as it is designed to be waterproof and is easy to work with. This is what I recommend using if you really want to make sure water stays out.

Step 5

That's it! Your basic container is ready. You can now do all sorts of things to make it your own. Here are some things I've done:

  • spray painted the outside black
  • glued a magnet to the inside of the bottom
  • used the plastic ring beneath the cap as a way to secure a zip tie
  • drilled a hole into the bottom and attached a chain with a small screw (the cap that is glued in place)
  • glued camo to the top of the outside of the container (the cap that screws off)

soda bottle container with the top off
Finished soda bottle container

black and white cat next to a soda bottle cache
My cat Gavin with a soda bottle container to show scale

What cool ideas have you come up with to personalize your cache container? Let us know in the comments.