Monday, August 18, 2008

Progress On Our New Backyard Project

My wife has this internal clock, that is tick... tick... ticking away....

No, not that clock.

Tonya is, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, the practical one in our family. Part of what this means--for better, and for worse--is that she has a sense of what the practical deadlines are for any given task.

Tim, we need to get this done by next Thursday...

Tim, we have to get that out in the mail today....

Tim, they'll be here in two weeks....

So it goes. Now, I do have to admit that the petulant, whining child in me occasionally finds this a little annoying. However, credit where it's due: if it weren't for this lovable trait in my spouse, we'd still be doing our taxes.

So anyway, my wife reminded me a couple of weeks back: Tim, summer is almost over, and there were a bunch of things we were hoping to get done before the rainy season starts....

(Which reminds me: I'm going to have to clean out the gutters soon. Darn that woman.)

Thus, our new backyard project. Now this one isn't near as long or involved as the last backyard project we did. That one involved me moving several metric tons of dirt, gravel, sand, concrete, and stone by spade and wheelbarrow. This one isn't nearly so onerous; wood chips are a lot lighter than any of the above.

But this last weekend's phase of the project involved planting.

What did we plant?

Um, plants. Green, leafy things. Heck if I know! Ask Tonya.

They're pretty, no doubt. But if it had been up to me, I would have gone into the plant nursery--no, strike that--I would have gone into Lowe's and picked the first dozen or so green leafy things within reach that looked kinda purty, and that would have been our garden.

But I do know shovels. And dirt. So I took all these plants (helpfully arranged by my lovely bride into an aesthetically pleasing configuration), and I took the shovel, and I started to dig.

And I promptly discovered a deep, dark secret.

(Peanut gallery: "Jimmy Hoffa!")

No, not that secret. It was much, much worse than that.

This part of the yard--sandwiched between the side of our house and our neighbor's fence, right past the end of the patio I built last year--was apparently the dumping ground of all the previous occupants of the house, going back to the 1970's it would appear. And what did they dump there?

Cigarette ash. Two-and-a-half decades worth of cigarette ash, right where we were trying to put the Japanese Maple.

Now, I don't claim to be a chemist, but I figured: that can't be good for the soil quality. And from what little chemistry I did learn, I vaguely remembered that ashes consist primarily of metal oxides, which when dissolved in water, turn the whole system highly alkaline. This probably didn't bode well for those green leafy things my wife called "azaleas" and "camellias", which apparently like rather acidic soils.

So we broke out the soil test kit, which my wife just happened to have on hand (thanks to Auntie Wendy), and I scooped some of the soil--making sure to grab it from the ashy part--into the test chamber. We ran the test, and discovered (much to my surprise) that it had a pH. of 6.5--very slightly on the acidic side.

Well, I still didn't trust the dirt. That wasn't good, honest, clean dirt.

So when I dug the holes for all those big green leafy things, I made sure to dig a much bigger hole for each one than it really required; I put the nasty dirt in the wheelbarrow, and dumped it in an undisclosed location; and then I got new, clean soil by mixing roughly equal parts of plain old dirt (left over from the previous backyard project's excavations) and compost made from grass clippings.

Very long story short, it took way too much time to get all those green leafy things in the ground. And we still don't trust the dirt any farther than we can throw it; I'm going to insist we fertilize the heck out of everything back in that little corner until they're fully mature, just to be sure.

So what does the area look like? Take a look:
Yeah, I know; they look pretty small in this picture. But they'll get bigger; and when they do, the entire side of the house will be lined with green, as will the fence on the opposite side; and that Japanese Maple in the back will pretty well fill the area to the point where that red fence will be pretty well obscured.

And if you look closely, you can see that there are three ferns in pots, right under the windows. This is something we had to plan strategically; you see, opposite from those windows, the neighbor has this ginormous Chinese Elm, with huge roots. I know from firsthand experience how huge those roots are, because I wound up cutting through a couple of them when I put the patio in. We are not about to plant anything next to the fence by that Chinese Elm. If you want to come over and dig that hole, you're welcome to.

So if we can't dig a hole, the next best thing is to get a bunch of pots, and put the big green leafy things in them. It's just as pretty as putting them in the ground; they're easier to maintain; and you don't have to dig big holes through Chinese Elm roots to plant them. But we had to make sure that it looked balanced, so that means we had to have big pots on both sides of the patio.


Just an observation. You know how a cat looks regal and dignified--most of the time? And then you get it wet, and it just looks bedraggled, unhappy, and thoroughly comical?

I've noticed that recently transplanted plants are a little like that, too. You pick up a plant at the nursery. It looks cheery and happy in its snug little pot. Then you take it home, and place the pot where you're going to plant it, and the plant still looks as if it's enjoying life. And then you dig a hole in the ground, manually pull the green leafy victim out of its pot, rough up its roots a little so they're sticking out and not wrapped around in the molded shape of the pot it came from, stuff the thing unceremoniously in the ground, and then moosh dirt all up around it. By the time you're done, it looks... well, it looks like a cat that's just had a bath. It looks like it has bed-hair. It looks like it's having a really bad day.

And usually, in a day or two it's gotten back to is sunny, cheerful self again, unless you've managed to kill it.

Well, most of our plants are doing fine now. That Japanese Maple is still looking a little iffy, though. They're lovely trees, but they're temperamental. You suddenly change the weather on them, or give them too much sun, or too little water (or too much!), or you speak harsh words to them, and it starts thinking suicidal thoughts and its leaves start to crinkle up and wither. Well, our Japanese Maple is starting to show the Warning Signs; it's already in the Goth phase. Tonya has full faith that it will pull through, though; we have a few other Japanese Maples that did exactly the same thing just after we planted them, and they are now strong and healthy. We hope and trust that our new one will emerge from this phase a little more grown up, and with slightly better self-esteem, than it now possesses.


Well, as with so many things around here, this job isn't done yet. You're only seeing two out of four of Tonya's "Zones". That's right, she meticulously drew up a plan for which big green leafy things were supposed to go where, and we've only hit two of the four zones so far. The other two zones are about as big as the ones we've done here, and one of them will require me to go in with a big dose of Round-Up first. (And then give it about two weeks to die off. I can hear Tonya now: Tim, you do know how little time there is before summer ends, don't you?...)

And once all those plants are in, we get to cover this whole section with ground cloth and wood chips, like I showed in the post linked above.

So we still have a good amount of work to be done. Still, it's the kind of work that's satisfying; we're creating our own little piece of heaven here, one weekend at a time. By the time we're done, we're imagining that this little corner of our backyard will be the perfect spot to relax in at the end of a busy summer day.

So long as it's not still 110° out.


Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Tim, you said:

... Cigarette ash. Two-and-a-half decades worth of cigarette ash, right where we were trying to put the Japanese Maple. ... I put the nasty dirt in the wheelbarrow, and dumped it in an undisclosed location;

The ash from the cancer sticks is going to be primarily carbon. It, like wood ash, will have concentrations of metal carbonates and metal oxides in the parts per million (ppm) of dry weight. (Afterall, how much metal do you think tobacco leaves contain.)

Mix it in a compost pile with any greens (grass clippings) you have in rough equal proportions and you should be basically okay.

Layer it. Ash and other woody materials (e.g., paper), then a layer of greens, etc.

Try this link, Level 1 Composting, for a quick and dirty reference on backyard composting

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

BTW, I don't know if you are into organic gardening or not; but if you are, feel free to use commercial fertilizers anyway.

Commercial fertilizers are made from ground up rocks.

I don't know how you get more "organic" (i.e., "natural") than that!

Chris said...

The yard is looking awesome. I know you've been working on it for most of this millennium. When I saw your previous post (wood chip delivery) I thought "man, why didn't I take a picture of MY delivery?" We only got 5 cubic yards of mulch, but we also got 50 bales of pinestraw, 10 big bags of pine bark, and 900ish lbs of rock. And best of all, it was ALL placed by the end of the first day. I'll post some pictures this weekend.

Haven't been commenting as much, but I'm still a regular!