Over the last 4-5 years, I have somewhat lost the desire to deal with the back yard, short of planning my edible garden and wishing that the rest of the yard wasn’t such a shithole. My best descriptor for the overall aesthetic we had going was “the back yard looks like meth addicts are squatting in our house.” There were a lot of things that I really wanted to accomplish in the back yard, but I just didn’t have the spirit to execute on most of them. A few years ago, Craig’s parents had given us a pretty hefty handful of really fancy retaining wall blocks left over after a project in their own yard. I got started using these when I was working on the duck enclosure and then started building a small retaining wall in the area where I had previously had used small basalt boulders to form a small raised bed around the “main” deck. I got partway through before running out of blocks. Facing purchasing a bunch more retaining wall blocks at $8 apiece, plus all of the caps necessary to finish the project, things stalled. For 2.5 years. It was just a big financial commitment and those suckers are heavy (75lbs apiece). I ran out of steam.
Couple the procrastination of spending the labor and money on finishing the retaining wall block project (and it really did need to get done, the dogs were kicking gravel out into the yard over the little rocks I had put in initially) with the frustration I’ve been feeling over the dogs tearing up or killing via literal pissing contests everything we have tried to grow that hasn’t been protected by raised beds, fencing, or the sheer will of the plant to survive, it was tough to come up with a game plan. Part of what I’ve learned about myself is that I simply am not great about regular maintenance. Upon getting comfortable with that truth about myself (instead of just trying to “get better”), I’ve developed systems that have made my day-t0-day laziness easier to live with. I put up a clothes hanging rack in the laundry room, and 8 different bins, so I can hang “important” clothes and sort specific or small clothes (Craig and I each have a bin for underwear, under shirts/tank tops, socks, etc) and then we live with the day-to-day pile of clean clothes that accumulates in front of the washer. My modified hugelkultur raised beds have been lifesavers in terms of freeing me from regular watering chores while still allowing me to grow edibles. I’m switching some of my smaller raised beds to growing perennials like berries so I don’t have to plan, plant, and maintain them. So part of the yard project was trying to be realistic about what I can handle, how much effort I am willing to put in, and how I would like to use the yard.
I started a new job in January. With it came a drastically shorter commute and a lower stress level. I felt empowered to change things that I didn’t like. I started taking better care of myself, eating better, and finally got started thinking about taking care of the yard. We have a few friends coming to visit from out of town in May, and with a deadline looming ahead (the only way I ever really get anything accomplished) I decided that the yard needed to be “done” by the time they arrived. So of course the project had to be scheduled out so I was able to accomplish my goals. The biggest hurdle in even getting started on the project was getting the retaining wall blocks and caps delivered. It was an expensive delivery, and 2 days before the day the blocks arrived, our 43 year old fence blew down in a wind storm. The neighbors and us had been casually discussing splitting the cost of putting a new fence in, as our sad repairs just weren’t cutting it. This was the year that the fence actually needed to be replaced. So within the span of a few weeks, we had accomplished the scariest hurdle thus far in the plan along with dealing with the thing that we’d been avoiding for the last several years.
Having both things completed felt good, and got some really good momentum going. Part of the block buildout was rebuilding and expanding the fire pit. While pondering what exactly the area around the fire pit would look like (we knew that 2 sides would be gravel, and the other 2 were shaping up to be mulch) I decided that I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on the idea of something pretty and green and grasslike vs a wide sea of brown mulch. So I spent weeks researching all of our options. The biggest issue with grass is that it needs watering… like a lot. Stuff like clover and wooly thyme handle that issue, but just won’t stand up to the type of heavy traffic only people who own multiple large dogs would understand. Which is when I found a link to Pearls Premium (don’t worry, they aren’t compensating me at all for this, in fact, their grass seed is crazy expensive) where they claim that their seed blend grows very deep roots and grows super slow, only needing to be mowed once a month, and the root system is supposed to go like 12″ deep, so it doesn’t need to be watered nearly as often as “normal” grasses. We will see. This weekend our next door neighbor was asking me about seeding lawns and I told him that I found this special grass seed and he had read the same stuff about it. We are both anxious to see if it will live up to the hype from the website. I called the company to ask them about what they thought of my plan of excavating the current mat of glorious weeds and just topping the area up with compost before seeding. I was told that my plan should work well. I also asked about adding clover to the grass mix as clover fixes nitrogen (feeding the grass) and also stays green through drought, and attracts bees with its flowers. The man that I spoke with told me that they were actually considering adding a clover mix to their lineup for those exact reasons, but hadn’t done it yet. With his recommendation for 1-2% clover seeds by weight (to the grass seed) I felt confident in my plan. We had a few yards of compost delivered, and used it to fill in the freshly excavated lawn area and the garden beds that I had built up a bit with the retaining wall blocks. We moved a tree from a pot in the front yard to the garden bed, and planted the grass seed that weekend.
Of course there were other projects between the blocks and the grass – most notably, sifting through all of the gravel that hadn’t made it into the designated gravel area prior to the lawn going in. The last thing that I wanted was a bunch of rocks in our new lawn. When the fence got replaced, the contractor regraded and used the old basalt boulders that I had replaced and built a small retaining wall. Part of the reason the old fence was doing so poorly was that over time, the hill between the houses had eroded and was piled up against the fence. The retaining wall combined with planting some very drought tolerant plants should help prevent that from happening this time. Please pretend that my sad tomato cage and paracord “fence” isn’t there. Hopefully once things fill in, we can remove the barriers, but I want to at least dissuade the dogs from running through that zone until everything is thriving.
The final couple parts of the puzzle were a handful of dwarf fruit trees and all of the mulch. Over the course of 2 weekends, with the help of both Craig and my incredible tireless mother, we moved 13 yards of animal friendly hog fuel which was had for the extremely low price of $16.50/yd, about half what a standard beauty bark type mulch runs around here. It should be able to stand up to the dogs better than smaller mulch, and also keep some of the chicken digging in check. We also picked up the fruit trees that I was hoping for. We now have a columnar mountain rose apple; a dwarf chehalis apple tree; a dwarf apple tree with 4 different varieties grafted onto it- jonagold, honey crisp, akane, & beni shogun fuji; a frost peach(curl resistant); and a harko nectarine. Hopefully we start getting fruit in the next few years. Otherwise, it’s just been filling in beds with inexpensive perennials and annuals to make things look a little less barren while we wait for things to grow, fill in, and settle. As our barrier needs decrease (the grass is taking up every bit of temporary fencing we own right now), I will start adding in some perennials that will hopefully survive the dogs peeing on them, and see about getting something like a big piece of columnar basalt and try to make that the target. I’ve read stories of it working in the past. Who knows.
The chickens are also pretty irritated by the developments. Tons of weeds and grass meant lots of bugs to forage and me not really caring if they damaged anything in the yard. With the veggie beds going and grass just really starting to sprout, I haven’t trusted them in the yard, so they’ve been on “house arrest” in their enclosure and are not thrilled with me.
As part of my early spring yard cleanup, I trimmed back a ton of the huge rhododendron in the front yard to bring more light into the house, and finally deadheaded our huge hydrangea. I’ve been trying to make a point of keeping a somewhat closed system in the yard – that is, not throwing out topsoil/weeds if they can be composted and used in other parts of the yard, etc. Last year’s super hot summer showed that my hugel beds needed a bit more wood material to hold water, so I dug out the soil in the beds and put more wood in them.
I’d dig like 1/4 of the bed out, fill it with rhododendron trimmings and sticks from the hydrangea, then cover them up with more dirt, dig the next section, fill with woody material, lather, rinse, repeat. The woody stuff bumped up the volume in my raised beds, as every spring I find myself needing to add additional soil as stuff breaks down a little, but among my 3 different piles of compost I have going, none of them are ready for time in the garden, so I won’t have any new soil to add this spring.
As I dug through the soil, you can see the lighter brown spots where broken down wood was. It’s beautiful fluffy soil now.
I had some random scraps of untreated wood leftover from chicken pen construction and bits and pieces of bamboo that were used as stakes and impromptu fences years ago.
Every few years, I like to check on the status of the wood that the beds are made out of. Because it’s untreated, I have been a bit concerned that it’s going to break down. The bottom layer is now 7 years old, and the top layer is I think 2. Both seem to be in fine shape.
Then I just refilled and kind of releveled the bed. Then the stinker chickens decided that they had to make sure I did a good enough job. I guess the next step is making sure I can keep them out of the garden beds come the time I plant them!
I have gone a month and a half with less than a quarter of an inch of precipitation and daily highs in the 60s to 80s. I haven’t watered since early May. That’s 6 weeks ago.
With all of the issues that our country is having with water shortages, I thought that I might share my personal garden approach. It is by no means perfect, but it worked with what I had going and requires very little maintenance. That is essentially my entire philosophy in gardening… initially higher effort, but then almost no effort for the same reward. Low maintenance is key for me. I have so many projects and interests that keeping all of my plates spinning can be difficult when things require constant effort and attention. There is a permaculture technique called “Hugelkultur” wherein you make a mound of logs, branches, and stumps, then pile soil and compost on top of that and plant things on the mound. These mounds are called hugels, and in permaculture, they are generally planted with trees/saplings and other bushy things to stabilize them. This can also be done below-ground where you excavate, bury your woody stuff, and then pile the soil back on top. This gives you less surface area, but you don’t have enormous mounds in your yard either. The way that we made this concept work in our yard was with our raised beds, which we use to keep the dogs out and theoretically keep things neat. Our raised beds are 2 feet tall to prevent dog intrusion or dog pee from making it onto the edibles. The way that we have executed hugelkultur is kind of a weird hybrid.
Above is a super fancy illustration of my tomato bed, which is just a little more complicated, in that I’ve also installed these ABS pipes with holes in them to direct water directly to the root zone and re-saturate the wood. When I water the tomato bed, I just stick the hose directly into the pipes and water that way. It keeps the tomato foliage dry which helps prevent disease and reduces water consumption because the top layers of soil don’t benefit from being wet and are the first to dry off.
Here is a shot of my tomato bed where you can see the pipes in action. This was taken 2 nights ago. This puts us at 6 weeks without a single drop of water.
This is another tomato bed, but without the pipes. This bed also doesn’t have a tent covering it, and you can see how the tomatoes haven’t grown nearly as quickly. I’m tellin’ you, these row covers and tomato tents work! Heat-loving veggies thrive in them. I have a weather station probe in my tomato tent and it regularly hits 90-110 in there.
This bed is 2 tomatoes, a few cucumber plants, and some sort of volunteer winter squash. At this point the squash are only an inch long or so, but based on their shape, I’m guessing they’re either butternut or spaghetti squash. I did break down and water this bed last night, so it only made it 6 weeks. The other beds are holding steady at totally unwatered. Strangely enough, the only thing that’s not doing so hot is my strawberries! They are new to the bed and perhaps not totally established, but they look pretty rough and will probably need a bit of water soon. The zucchini plants in the bed with them seem happy as clams though!
When my in-laws moved, they had some really nice shelving units in their garage. The garage of their new house had a bunch of even nicer built-ins, so Craig and I inherited the shelves. Due to the layout of the garage, we haven’t been able to use all of them in the garage. When we got rid of our gas grill and switched entirely to the Weber, I lost my little bit of counter space to set food on that was out of the reach of dogs. Without wanting to spend any real money on a proof of concept, I set up one of the garage shelves under the covered deck area and began using it. And it has been really great. A few weeks ago, I dragged everything off the deck to pressure wash and stain it (it’s been 3 years since it’s been done!), and finally felt comfortable enough with the cure level of the stain to start bringing things back onto the deck. It wasn’t until that point when I saw just how shabby the shelf had become. Despite being under cover, the melamine covered particle board had absorbed humidity and in addition to getting discolored in spots, had begun warping and overall just gotten icky. My first thought was to build a freestanding shelf out of that black plumbing pipe and fittings. But then I went to Lowes and just the pipe and fittings would have been over $100 for something sufficiently stable. And frankly, I didn’t hate the existing shelf $100+ worth. So I sat with it and mulled it over for a little while, and decided that since there is nothing wrong with the framing portion of the shelving unit, and it is actually very stable. So I decided to replace the warped shelf boards with lumber. From there it was just a matter of figuring out how to fill the 18″ depth of the shelf in the most efficient manner. Remember if you’re using dimensional lumber, you should subtract .5″ from each dimension of the lumber. So a 2×4 is actually 1.5×3.5. Don’t ask me why, that’s just how it works. Anyway, we determined that 5 2x4s would fill the space with half an inch of room to spare, which could easily be made up by spacing the lumber like deck boards.
So I went to Lowes. And I spent 15 minutes digging through their pile of 8′ 2x4s. Dimensional lumber isn’t designed to have a pretty appearance and smooth finish, so it takes digging to find a few boards that look nice. Take note that one side of most lumber will have printing on it. It also usually has large tooth marks on it from feeding through machinery. I wasn’t concerned with the printing and the crump on the back because it was going to make up the bottoms of my shelves, but it proved tricky to find 5 boards that weren’t super rough (If I had been willing to spend more than 5 minutes sanding things, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but I wasn’t) and full of divots and dings and whatnot. You have to remember that this needs to be easy to wipe off, as I’ll be setting food on it. Buying 8′ boards allowed me to just have them cut in half as my shelves are 4′ long. Once I found my lumber, I tracked down someone to cut it for me (seemed easier than cutting it myself). Total cost was about $15, but I also bought 2 throwaway paint brushes to apply the stain with, so I guess I’m looking at about $20 after tax for the cost of the shelf update.
When I got home, I unloaded the boards, laid them out in the gravel area near the deck and knocked down all the edges with a sanding block. If I came across any rough patches, I’d sand them a little there as well. All in all, I spent about 10 minutes sanding. Then I dug into the garage and found some spare brown stain and went at it. It was super hot, so by the time I had stained all 4′ sections (stain the bottom first!), I was able to flip them onto their sides and then eventually do the tops of all of them. I did the ends last. All-in-all, this probably took 30-45 minutes. I let it sit out to cure for about 24 hours in 80 degree weather, and came back the next evening to assemble.
Assembly consisted of placing the boards upside down on the shelf (printing side up!) and spacing them evenly (remember that I had to make up 1/2″ overall). For this, I was able to just use the screws that I was using to hold them together. I found some more scrap wood in the garage. Ideally, I’d have used 1×2, but I forgot to get any at the store and wanted to get it done, so I just used some leftover cedar decking from when we built the deck. I cut it into 16″ pieces, so that it would easily clear the supports on the sides of the shelves. I could have used some metal strapping, but a) I didn’t have any, and b) I wanted to tie the boards together with something stiff to help support the middle boards along the 4′ length, and tying them to the side boards with something rigid should help with that.
Then I just lined it up and used some old deck screws (that were short enough not to go through the boards and poke out the other side) to secure both of the ends before screwing the middle boards in. To pull some of the boards in, the screws ended up digging pretty deeply into the soft cedar, but the screws didn’t go through, so no biggie. Then the shelves just got flipped and set into their unit.
I have cut open 3 of the fancy Galeux D’Eysines pumpkins. Something has gone horribly wrong, and I do not know what it is. Either way, I have no desire to eat them.
So my fancy french pumpkins have cured. I pulled out the vines the first Sunday of the month and have let them cure in the sun and then the rain for a couple of weeks. They have cured as long as I could have feasibly done so. Craig is out hunting for the next few days, so with my solitude, I hope to get some of them cooked. I wanted to weigh the big one, so I used the highly scientific method of getting on the bathroom scale, weighing myself (not my finest moment), then grabbing the pumpkin and weighing myself again. It came in at 45 pounds. I imagine that the 2 other big ones are in at 20-30 pounds. The remaining pumpkins are about the same size as (maybe a hair bigger than) a sugar pumpkin you’d get at the grocery store. I don’t really have much to say about them, other than I will probably make a post about cooking them. I hope to have a scintillating post about bras tomorrow, but no promises.
I had high hopes earlier this year when my young olive tree had generated several small olives, roughly the size of the head of a pin. Then when the weather heated up and stayed hot, I let myself get optimistic, thinking that this may help push them along, despite the tree theoretically being far too young to actually produce anything edible. But I checked on them the other day. I have olives, I just don’t have enough to make it worth my while either try to extract oil from them, or to lye cure and try eating them. All in all, I’d say my olive total is in the neighborhood of ten.
C’est la vie.