Wednesday, July 01, 2009

all we've got to give is love and hard labor

When my parents bought this house 21 years ago, one of the draws was the raised garden in the back. In the southeast corner, it gets plenty of sun and it's regularly yielded delicious veggies from zucchini as big as my thigh to sweet cherry tomatoes. It's just not summer without hanging out in the back yard, working on the garden.

But this patch was in need of a major rehab. For one, my parents have cobbled scrap wood onto the sides to keep it together, and their efforts to keep out THE BUNNIES haven't always been successful. The entire corner is on a slope, and heavy rains wash a good chunk of the dirt away; they ended up putting about ten bags of high-quality soil onto it every year. Plus, the rocks and gravel from the bottom have slowly risen through the ranks due to years of frost heave.

H and I thought it'd be a nice project to build a sturdier, more level garden for my mom, even though our gardening knowledge tops out at how much we like to eat what grows there. But with a little Internet research and several trips to the hardware store, we began.


We hadn't banked on the four corner posts being buried deep and rooted in cement. We also did not estimate there would be THAT much dirt packed so tightly.

We had to buy a bigger, sturdier wheelbarrow. This was by far our best investment; it paid for itself about tenfold. This is about a quarter of the way dug out.

This was the FIRST dirt pile. It is difficult to describe how big it was. I am 5'3" and the peak of this came up to my shoulder. But H's youth spent building bike-riding dirt ramps came in mighty handy. Our method was to fill the wheelbarrow, push it into the center of the yard, take a running start up a ramp in the dirt and dump it without getting flipped over or dragged down.

It took us all weekend just to dig out the hole (taking breaks for the rain, of course). This is a little more than halfway done. We had to start another pile when it became too hard to get the wheelbarrow to the top of this one.

One major goal was for the new garden to be level instead of sloping with the hill. We weren't sure how far down to dig, but we knew it'd have to be deeper on the right side. It ended up being about 12-15 inches deep on the right and 6 or 7 inches on the left. H dug out the left side a little farther because my mom wanted the garden to be bigger.


It rained. We spent the whole weekend at the garden center coming up with a game plan. We ordered the bricks, which would be delivered the next week.


If we'd started building the garden at the depth we'd dug to, the brick wall wouldn't even show over the edge of the hole and it'd be less effective at keeping out THE BUNNIES. So we had to fill back in. Sigh. This was slightly less difficult as digging out--only because the dirt was no longer packed so tight. But after the rain it got packed anyway. This is the view from the top of the pile to the ground.

There were A TON of rocks in the dirt. So we built this "sifter" to pick them out, which was extremely time-consuming. My mom kept trying to help with the shoveling, but I was worried about her back so we gave her this job. It was just as hard, but didn't have as much heavy lifting. When it became apparent we wouldn't have time to sift it all, this dirt was designated to be "topsoil."

This is about a quarter of the way into filling the hole with the first pile. To put this in perspective, we calculated that (with two half-trucks of topsoil, plus the ten bags a year of peat moss my parents have added over the years) H and I had dug out FOUR THOUSAND POUNDS of dirt. And then we had to put most of it back into the hole.

Making it level was H's personal mission, so even though I'm in this photo I can't take much credit for all the work (it took forever) to get it all even. At this point, we had filled in most of the hole and started to tamp down the part on which the bricks would lie. We called my mom's friend's husband who is a bricklayer and he said that would be a good idea, as well putting down a layer of pea gravel and sand under the bricks.

The person who helped us at the garden center had said we didn't need the gravel or sand, but at that point we'd rather have been safe than sorry if the whole thing sank or collapsed after a few seasons of hard rain. Plus we trusted the bricklayer more than the clerk at the store.

After the project was finished, it came to light that the bricklayer thought we were building a patio, not a garden wall. We could have just laid the bricks down on the grass because "it's not like people were going to walk on it." Lesson learned. But we would have sat down and cried if the whole thing fell apart later, so we don't regret the extra work to get it right. Hundreds of measurements have confirmed that it is indeed perfectly level.

We originally ordered enough bricks for a three-tiered wall. As we started industrial-strength-glueing the stones, we thought it would look better/be harder on THE BUNNIES if we made it four layers. And when we went back to the garden store, our bricks were on sale! So we purchased enough for the last layer and got back the difference in price on the ones we had bought earlier, a savings of nearly $200!

Finishing the wall (it was nearly dark, but we got it done) made me jump for joy. Kudos to H who was able to pull off this action shot with very little ambient light.


Raining. Again. We bought more seedlings because the original ones were starting to wilt in their containers. This project was taking longer than expected.


We finally filled the garden back up with dirt, then topped it with "sifted" dirt. If we were going to do this again, we would have stopped and thought longer before grabbing the shovels--the highest-quality dirt actually ended up at the BOTTOM of our new garden. But because my parents had added so much soil over the years, we hope that it will still be good.

We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to protect the garden from THE BUNNIES. In estimating the amount of bricks, we miscalculated just a little and ended up two bricks short. This became the "doorway" (we didn't want my mom to have to climb in and out over the poultry netting). We fashioned this "gate" out of heavy-duty steel shelf-mounting rails and a screen-door protector. It's going to take some damn intrepid THE BUNNIES to get into this garden.

After the netting and stakes (we piled more dirt against the netting so THE BUNNIES can't climb up and under it) were in place, it was time to plant! We placed plastic stepping stones in strategic places for kneeling and walking.

Let's hope it grows.


Teej said...

I'm speechless. I am WITHOUT SPEECH. How did you guys know how to do... well, ANY of this? If you'd given me even one of these steps to do, I'd have bungled it. It looks incredible.

Syar said...

I'm with Teej. This looks like so much work. SO much work. Hard work at that. But look at you troopers! You did it, and so well too. :D I hope many delicious things grow there, and that THE BUNNIES! keep away.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a project. Like building the pyramids or something.

Congratulations on a nice job.

omar said...

So I've got some landscaping work I need done, what's your price?

I think the fourth layer is really what's going to stick it to THE BUNNIES. Unless it's like the Javier Sotomayor of bunnies. But assuming he exists, what are the chances he lives in Illinois?

SupaCoo said...

My goodness, that is quite the project. No wonder you've been gone for awhile :) I can't wait to see what you grow!!

Jon said...

I've seen these bunnies of which you speak. They just sit there and stare at you, completely unaffected by your presence. Half the time their eating something they just stole out of your garden. I hope that fence holds up.

cadiz12 said...

what we thought would be hard (laying the bricks) turned out to be simple, teej. it was all the LEVELING that was hard!

thanks, syar! so far, I've seen THE BUNNIES in the outer stretches of the yard, but not too many lurking around the actual perimeter of the garden.

holy cow, anon, i can't even FATHOM building pyramids. but they had a few extra pairs of hands to get that job done.

for you omar, i'm sure we could quote you quite a deal (we'd need to be paid in children's serenades). at first i thought that high jumper was related to the Supreme Court pick and was very confused. i sure hope there aren't any THE BUNNIES like him, but they have been dining on our goodies for about two decades, so you really never know.

Thanks Supacoo. I will definitely post more pics throughout the summer. hopefully the overturned soil (which was on the bottom of the hole and is now at the top) will still be as nutrient rich as the stuff that used to be on the top.

yes, THE BUNNIES are like mafiosos sitting there just TAUNTING anyone who bothers to look at them. my mom has another, more thrown-together patch near the garden-view windows where she planted all the extra seedlings, and THE BUNNIES have already snuck in and eaten everything but the zucchini. also, they've dug through the dirt we put up against the bottom of the fence and restored their passageways into the yard. cute little bastards.

Madelyn said...

Wow, good job! I'm a little worried about the bunnies though, i mean they're known for their hopping.

MonsteRawr said...

What a lovely thing to do for your mom! And such persistence. I'm pretty sure we would have gotten bored half-way and started building a fort instead.

Rosie said...

Take that, THE BUNNIES!

What an awesome project (and a sweet gift for your mom) thanks for outlining your steps and letting me follow along. I've always wanted to do a raised bed when I finally have my own space - my dad had three when I was a kid, mmm fresh veggies!
I love seeing how different beds are built. I find it interesting how much the pests we're trying to keep out (deer, bunnies, slugs) define the shape and look of our gardens.

Great blog, I'm going to have to stop by more often!

Guyana-Gyal said...

What I like is the way you always get into your projects and DO.


Now I'm winded after all this work.

I think I will go and dig around our garden early tomorrow morning.

As for THE Watership Down. hehe.