Archives for posts with tag: experiences with rocks

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

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Having made a decision with which we are completely comfortable, we jumped right in to our paving project.  So, after a hearty breakfast this morning, we got started with the sod removal.  Auspiciously, the weather this weekend is forecast to be some of the nicest of the season so far.

We’ve done this before (see January 7, 2012 and January 8, 2012, for our most recent experiences) and I have a clear script for what is needed.  The first step was measuring out the perimeter of the area to be removed and cutting it with a spade.

Next, I divided the sod into manageable strips.  One foot wide by four feet long is about as large as I can lift.  Even if I could lift larger pieces, it would be difficult to prevent them from falling apart.  I expect that sod farms have specialized equipment for handling bigger and longer rolls of sod; all I have is a spade and a wheelbarrow.

Getting the first strip of sod out is a bit like serving the first piece from a pie.  I had to gradually work the spade under one edge until I got enough leverage to pry it up (and like that first slice of pie, it got broken up at the edge).  At that point, Rachel could start rolling the strip (this is a two-person activity).  She continued rolling as I jabbed the spade underneath it horizontally to free it from the ground.

The only part of this process I like is the compact roll of sod that results (a four foot strip of sod makes a cylinder about one foot in diameter).  I muscled it into the wheelbarrow and when we had repeated the operation, carted the sod to a storage area.  I may use some of it to fill in gaps in the lawn but if we do not get to it (very likely), the sod will eventually dissolve in the rain.

After half an hour, we had cleared away eight square feet of grass (and not a few weeds and rocks).  But now that we were warmed up, our pace increased and by lunch time, we had removed the sod from three sides of the east planter (a total of 68 sq. ft.).  The temperature had also warmed up, however, and we decided to stop there.

We broke for lunch and when we resumed work, I used a steel rake to scrape the exposed soil level and shoveled out the excess (along with many more rocks).  Then, I dumped in several bags of brown cedar mulch.  I used the rake to smooth it out and to complete the operation, Rachel compacted it with a cast iron tamper.

I know that some people would have recommended that we put down a weed barrier between the soil and the mulch to prevent the inevitable return of dandelions, purslane and all of the other undesirable plants (not to mention the grass) and we did consider it.  But in my experience, these barriers are ineffective, especially at the joints, and often bunch up and become exposed.  When the weeds come back, we will pull them out.

We are very satisfied with the look of the mulch and love its soft feel under the feet.  We know that it will fade over time and that some will eventually blow away (and into the pool).  Fortunately, it can be easily be replenished.  And, if we later decide the mulch isn’t working, we can shovel it out and use it in the ornamental gardens.

As discussed before (see, for example, June 10, 2012, part 2), the trees around our house and garden are constantly growing and because they are so closely spaced, they are growing not outwards but upwards.  The result?  Their canopy is getting higher and denser and we are falling ever more deeply into the shade.

Last year, I observed that the solar panels on the roof (with which we heat the swimming pool) do not get any direct sunlight until sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and move back into the shade starting as early as 2:00 pm; by 4:00 pm, the upper panels are completed shielded by trees.  This greatly diminishes their effectiveness at heating the pool water.

The planters have a longer solar day (see June 20, 2012) but even in the garden, shade begins to have an impact as early as 4:00 pm as the shadows start to creep across the west planter.  The area to the west of the planters, where we plan to grow squash this year, is fully shaded by 3:00 pm.  This may not be enough sunshine for a vegetable as needy as zucchini.

There’s not much we can do about increasing the morning sun—all of the trees to the east of us are on a neighbor’s property—but we do control the woods to the west.  In particular, there are two tall maples just outside the pool fence that are casting most of the afternoon shadows.  They will have to go.  We are fortunate that the ground slopes down steeply just beyond our pool and many of the trees that might otherwise be a problem need not be considered.

Widening the exposure of the solar panels, on the other hand, will require more drastic action.  The main culprits in their obstruction are the old oak tree that hangs over the west side of our house and a huge maple about twenty feet beyond it to the west.  Each is very tall and has already lost its lower branches.  And because they are on the edge of the woods, the two trees have reached outwards with their upper limbs, unlike their more constrained siblings located further into the woods.

Both of these trees have caused us trouble in the past:  We had the maple cabled many years ago to restrain a splitting trunk; the oak tree most recently dropped two large branches on the house and patio after a snowstorm a year and a half ago (see October 30, 2011, part 2).  So far, we have limited our approach to pruning but at this point, any pruning we might do would leave only barren (and funky-looking) trunks.

No, if we do anything they must also be removed.  But doing so will leave a noticeable void behind.  I’ve been resisting it for years because I know I will feel their loss.  A ranger at Yellowstone National Park once asked us (while we were gathered around a campfire) whether we had ever had an experience with rocks.  It took me a few years to grasp what she was getting at—the idea that the natural environment has a presence, an identity—and even if I have not had any experiences with trees, per se, I definitely feel their presence.  Losing these two will be a sad event.

And it will be a big project.  We brought in our long-time tree man, Jerry, to take a look at all of the trees we are planning to take down.  He’s done a lot of work here (see, for example, October 31, 2011) but this would be larger than any other takedown he has done for us.  The two maples at the end of the pool will simply be cut and allowed to fall down the hill (much more difficult and dangerous than it sounds) while the larger maple and oak will have to be carefully broken down, branch by branch and section by section.  Removing the wood once the trees are down will be a major undertaking all by itself.

It will be a great sacrifice but I think it will be for the greater good (of the house, garden and environment).