Archives for posts with tag: sod removal

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.


Anybody keeping track of what’s going on in our garden (and everybody’s keeping track, right?) may have noticed:  No herbs!  (Not counting the basil, of course.)

Why?  Well, for one thing we got a late start with our indoor growing.  Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, which take a long time to germinate and slowly develop to transplantable size, are best started in early January.  We didn’t plant our first seeds until the end of March (see March 24, 2013).  At that time, we were more concerned about tomatoes, cucumbers and squash than additional herbs.

Since then, with everything else we have been doing—planting, watering, nurturing, potting up, setting out; oh, and removing sod and placing cedar mulch—there just hasn’t been time.  Whenever we stopped to consider planting the herbs, we always concluded that there was something else more pressing that needed to be attended to first.

And there is also the question of where to plant them.  The adjunct herb garden of last year (on the concrete stoop outside one of our house’s doors) is no longer easily accessible.  My office is located just inside the door and my desk blocks it from opening.

The corner of the back porch, where we grew herbs two years ago, is now occupied by a bright yellow hibiscus plant in an intensely deep-blue ceramic pot (a gift from a friend; thank you!).  We tried placing a pot or two of basil beside the hibiscus but decided that it looked too busy and detracted from the flowers’—and the pot’s—simple beauty.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the house, several existing herbs from years gone by are staging a modest comeback.  Two of them—chives and oregano—we planted several years ago and left for dead after their first season; they’ve returned every year since.  Another three—thyme, tarragon and sage—we transplanted from the pots they grew in last year.  This spot, in partial shade all day, is not ideal for herbs but apparently it is good enough.

So, that’s where we’ll grow our herbs this year.  To fill out the space, we added spearmint and rosemary, the only plants we’ve purchased so far this season.  We would have transplanted our spearmint and peppermint from last year, but neither of them survived (which is odd because I consider mint an aggressive and invasive herb).  Finally, we nestled two pots of basil (ones we couldn’t give away) in among the other herbs.

This herb garden makes a pretty picture and, if it is successful, will be much more convenient to the kitchen.

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).

It is Memorial Day weekend and we are looking forward to setting out as many plants as possible before the holiday is over.  It might be my favorite gardening task.

But first, I had to face what is easily my least favorite.  In preparation for setting out the summer squash seedlings and sowing seeds for the winter squash (see May 19, 2013), we needed to remove the sod that is west of the west planter.

I’ve described—and complained about—this process several times already, so I will skip the details and the griping.  I will say, however, that due to yesterday’s rain and the sparsity of grass, the weedy sod (well, mostly it was loose soil) came up with much less effort than ever before.  I’m not saying that it was easy but it didn’t hurt quite so much.

Even so, it took us about two hours to finish the first half.  After a quick break for lunch, we cleared the remaining half in another hour and a half.  Then, we spread, raked and tamped eight bags of cedar mulch.  Now, almost the entire area north of the pool deck—a length of 50 feet—is devoted to garden.  It is a much better use of the space than lawn.

This should be the last sod removal of the year.  I’d like to say it is the last ever but given our tendency to expand, I know that eventually we’ll be removing more.

Future home of the summer and winter squashes (time for a swim!)

Our plan this year is to expand the garden and plant the squashes, both the summer squash seedlings and winter squash seeds, directly in the ground to the west of the west planter.  It is also our intention to grow the cucumbers along the fence, just behind (i.e., north of) the planters.  When we hatched this plan in the middle of the winter (see January 16, 2013), it seemed like we had all the time in the world to make it happen.

Well, five months later, it is still only a plan.  The difference is that now we have two dozen seedlings that are almost ready to be transplanted.  That we have not yet prepared the garden for them is not yet critical (they’re still fine in their pots) but getting it done has increased in urgency.  The plants will continue to grow regardless of what we do—or don’t do.

Sadly, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor activities.  It remains unseasonably cool and unusually rainy (all of the showers we were supposed to have in April arrived this month instead).  The work will have to wait a bit longer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to refine and better define our plans.

Preparing the ground for the squashes will first mean removing more sod, 160 sq. ft. of it to be specific.  This is almost exactly the same area (158 sq. ft.) as we removed around the planters at the end of April (see April 27, 2013, part 2 and April 28, 2013) so we have a long day (or two) ahead of us.

It’s not something I look forward to but I am heartened by the fact that there is not much that would qualify as sod in that part of the lawn.  It is mostly weeds and bare earth which should come out with substantially less effort than the soil in grassier regions, especially if the conditions are favorable (e.g., shortly after a rainy day).

Once the sod is removed, we will cover the area with cedar mulch to match the adjoining garden.  That will leave us with a blank canvas on which to lay out our squash plants.  According to the seed packets, they should be spaced at about five feet in each direction and we know from experience that squash plants can get quite large.  Even so, we would like to fit as many as possible within the available space.

So I sketched a rough plan of the garden as it currently exists to the east and as we envision it to the west.  The squash zone is eight feet by 20 feet and we will need aisle space on each side and between it and the west planter.  Assuming one foot for the former and two feet for the latter leaves us with a useable area that is six feet by 18 feet.

This divides nicely into 12 sections, each three feet square (and each nine square feet).  We have enough seedlings (and seeds) to plant all of them but that might result in more squash than we can handle.  Also, if we plant the entire area with squash this year, we would have to find someplace else to plant squash next year to avoid replanting in exactly the same place.

Instead, we will plant six of the sections in a staggered arrangement and leave the other six sections vacant (next year, we will swap locations).  We will plant two of each type of summer squash (crookneck and zucchini) and one of each variety of winter squash (Kabocha and Delicata).

When they mature towards the end of the summer, the squash vines will be more circular than square in extent and that means there will be a narrow space between them (about 15 inches, or three feet times the square root of two minus one).  This will provide some additional access.

The cucumbers are a bit easier to configure.  We will plant three of each kind (slicing and pickling), spaced at two feet, behind the east planter.  We planted cucumbers in the west planter last year and will plant them behind it next year.  It is neither a long-cycle crop rotation nor a long-distance one but we hope that it will keep the striped cucumber beetles guessing, at least for a little while.

Rachel predicts that we will next decide to convert the area east of the planters (about 64 sq. ft. are available there) and jokes that eventually, the pool will be surrounded by the vegetable garden.  At the rate we are going, it is probably no joke!

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was, I’m getting too old for this stuff.

Of course, this is not really true.  But I was tired and sore, especially in my hands and forearms, and I have to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult over time to muster the energy needed for intensely physical tasks such as sod removal.

We briefly considered taking the day off but then asked ourselves, if not today then when?  It would be much better to dive back in and get the job done now.  So, we headed back out to work around the west planter.

It was sunnier today and much warmer than yesterday.  We don’t always realize it, but the weather makes a big difference.  We had to work slower than yesterday and take breaks more frequently.

We managed to persevere, however, and after a couple of hours had removed the sod up to the west edge of the planter.  As we progressed from east to west, the grass petered out and weeds predominated.  Also, the soil became rockier and rockier.  Consequently, by the time we finished, the sod no longer came away in rolls.  Chunks the size of the spade’s blade were the largest we could pull up.

After the drudgery of digging, placing the mulch was enjoyable in comparison and by the early afternoon, we were done.  Well, mostly done.  At some point in the next few weeks, we will have to continue the sod removal to the west to make room for the squashes.  I’m not looking forward to the work but I am looking forward to being truly done with it.

And that’s a very good thing because eventually, we will be too old for this.

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.