Archives for posts with tag: sod

So far, we’ve been lucky.

When we started planning the garden—back in 2011—a location that would keep it secure from animals was a primary criterion. We were mainly concerned about deer, who in our experience will munch on just about everything. But we had also seen beavers, groundhogs and rabbits in the neighborhood and, of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks in large numbers.

We were happy, then, when we chose a spot next to the swimming pool, which is surrounded by a four-foot high picket fence. It won’t keep the deer out if they really want to get in (they can jump up to six feet) but it does deter them and screens the garden from view (they can’t hurt what they can’t see). Similarly, squirrels and bunnies can easily pass between the pickets but the fence seems to be diverting their attention elsewhere.

Later, when we designed and built the raised beds, we kept potentially harmful animals in mind. Our planters are on the high side—almost two feet—which minimizes bending over (my aching back!) and provides comfortable seating, our main considerations. However, the extra height also elevates the plants well above ground level. Coupled with the planters’ bordering trim, which extends six inches above the soil level, there is no line of sight to nearby critters who pass by unaware. (On the other hand, if deer were to enter the pool enclosure, the planters would be at feeding trough height.)

During construction, before filling the planters with soil, we installed a layer of galvanized wire mesh. The hardware cloth forms the bottom of the planter through which water freely drains. But should a gopher or mole decide to attack our vegetable garden from underground, the mesh should prove an effective barrier.

I say “should” because it seems that our luck may be running out.

Up until recently, we had never seen signs of subterranean marauders. Sadly, though, as winter was ending and the snowpack receding, the telltale serpentine humps were revealed, the topsoil pushed up through the dormant grass. Depictions of this in old Warner Bros. cartoons is not an exaggeration. The route map of the gopher subway system was easily identifiable.

At first, the tracks were limited to the lawn areas. Eventually, though, we discovered them leading into the vicinity of the vegetable garden and then right up against the planters (I can imagine the clang as the Goofy Gophers banged their cute little heads into the wire mesh). In one or two spots, the tunnels breached the surface, where apparently the little rascals popped out to get their bearings.

Fortunately, we have not witnessed any carrots or beets disappearing into the ground, pulled from below by hungry rodents. Just in case, though, we will keep a rubber mallet near the planters so we can play an at-home version of the carnival favorite, Whac-A-Mole.

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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.

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.