Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Learning By Trowel and Error

Finally, and with about three weeks advance planning, this past three-day Memorial Day weekend provided a  great opportunity for relaxation and recreation. Or it would have, if I hadn't had a backyard makeover project that's been in a state of partial completion for about three years. The yard had not been touched since the end of the last growing season, so that alone tells you something about what kind of shape it was in as we entered the weekend.

Some background to clarify. About three years ago my all-concrete back yard had deteriorated to the point at which anyone going back there risked serious bodily injury. More importantly, they might sue me. Even in those cheap-oil days, the cost of concrete had skyrocketed to where the cost of repaving the entire yard was far beyond the budget, assuming (incorrectly) that there was a budget. Since I'd been gardening for years in planters, we decided to save on concrete - and, for that matter, planters - by repaving only about half the yard and keeping the rest exposed so I could remake it into an in-ground garden in all that spare time I have. In the ensuing three years, I learned some valuable lessons:

Lesson 1. Hand-digging the heavy clay soil found in this part of New Jersey is a bear.

Lesson 2. Lesson 1 is not helped by the presence of large, heavy rocks and construction debris left behind by the guys who built the house about 60 years ago. (They've probably gone on to that great construction project in the sky by now. My heartfelt wish is that they spend eternity laying in heavy clay soil with large rocks and construction debris.)

Lesson 3. Placing, one-by-one, a pallet and a half of stone pavers so they form a level network of walking paths throughout the garden is a really big bear.

Lesson 4. After said pavers have been placed, sweep sand into the cracks immediately. If you wait, oh, say, 3 years, weeds and grass grow between them with roots that extend down to around the earth's molten center. Pulling them out is an absolutely enormous bear.

Lesson 5. Hauling half a pallet of 80 pound bags of soil (or, as we call it in Jersey, "dirt") is no big deal for a tall strong guy who over the years has made sure he kept himself in shape.

Lesson 6: Hauling half a pallet of 80 pounds bags of soil is quite a big deal for a short, skinny middle-aged technocrat whose main form of exercise is pushing a pencil.

After far too long of tellingmyself I was sure going to finish this project "someday," my biological clock had had enough. (Yes, men have those too. Ours have us feeling we have to earn large sums of money or complete manly projects by a certain age.) I entered the three-day weekend with but one goal: finish the yard. A doctor friend I shared my three-day plan with advised me to get the Advil ready. I consider it a sign of prophetic cosmic approval that as I left to go home for the weekend after work on Friday, the Advil folks decided to hold a promotion and hand out free samples on the street. I got four or five packets, and was ready.

Having been neglected for more than half a year, a good bit of the yard was so overgrown with weeds you might have thought it an abandoned lot. The lawn, or rather the 10' x 18' patch of grass that passes for one, symbolized how the yard looked like an unkempt vagrant badly in need of a haircut. Introducing my two teenagers to the idea that manual labor is not a guy in their Spanish class, we got off to a good start that had the yard looking like a semi-kempt vagrant with a bad haircut in no time.

My boys took immediately to the task of weeding the areas that hadn't been planted last year and that had the most weed growth. Mostly they were enormously entertained by the variety of insect life forms one encounters while digging up old soil. By the time we got to developing the last planting sector I was unable to bear the thought of hauling one more bag of soil or laying one more stone paver. Solution: put up a steel arch-type trellis from a kit, put a hanging basket of something-or-other (petunias I think, but who was paying attention by that point), and mulch the living daylights out of that heavy clay soil.

By the time we ran out of daylight, the only remaining work was the weeding of a portion of the pavers, and some normal-maintenance weeding that actually has nothing to do with the makeover. And oh yeah, I have to find some way of getting rid of all those old planters. With only enough energy left at the end to run a hot bath and open a cold beer, I couldn't help feeling that life was a pretty good place.

Should you be interested, dear readers, here's the progress. The photo on the left is the old planter garden, arranged with great artistry in a 4 x 4 grid that may not seem like much to normal people but that engineers think is beautiful. On the right is the 2008 version. (The grass area is where the planters were in the photo on the left.) Please disregard my neighbor's Mesozoic-era fence that we hope to cover with one of our own some time soon.



oldhousegal said...

Ah, the joys of urban gardening!  The only thing better than spending a day digging up old bricks so you can plant some flowers is watching your cat dig said flowers up about a half hour after you're done because fresh dirt makes such a nice litter box...

amy122389 said...

Because I am a skim reader, I read "a  great opportunity for relaxation and procreation."  OOOOOOkay.....what the hell was I reading before I came to your journal, right?!?!  hahahahahahaaaa.....

dude....the garden looks awesome!  Feel free to stop by my backyard and make it look as pretty.  I walk out there, shake my head and sigh, and walk back in.  pfft.


faveanti said...

Ben - don't go covering up that old fence with one of your own.  You'll lose space off your own garden.  Go out and buy some trellis, nail it on, buy some climbing plants - something colourful and planty of it - and abracadabra you have a really 'wow'  garden.  I always think it's a shame you Americans call your back garden the 'back yard'.  Gives us Brits totally the wrong impression.  A back yard is only somewhere to keep the dustbins.  A Garden is beautiful.  Yours is beautiful, therefore it is a......?
love, Angie, xx

astoriasand said...

Clap Clap Well Done it looks great Ben.Clay oh! dear do not mention it. No drainage where that stuff lies.Keep up the good work.Looking forward to seeing it all overgrown again in 2009 LOL!! Only joking of course.Take Care God Bless Kath astoriasand http://junrals.aol.co.uk/astoriasand/MYSIMPLERHYMES