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July 11th, 2012

It Starts with the Soil

In my last post, I explained how my back yard had been allowed to languish for years while the plant matter overtook it. My landlords and I spent days (over a period of weeks) removing trees and shrubs and weeds, using chain saws and stump grinders and elbow grease. (To see photos of the Great Cleanout in progress, check out my “Back Yard Makeover” board on Pinterest.) But that was just one of the first steps in its transformation. Next we had to get the soil in shape for planting.

Bringing in heavy machinery to regrade the yard had been ruled out because of cost, but the design I came up with nevertheless required some extensive recontouring. I proposed repurposing the concrete wall blocks that were being used to line the ornamental bed as edging for the new vegetable garden. This helped correct an awkward junction with the neighbor’s property, since the retaining blocks helped stop soil from washing down into their driveway. But it necessitated bringing in a chain saw to muscle out a stump that was in the path of the wall blocks. After about a day’s hard labor—did I mention that this area of the yard also concealed buried rocks and bricks?—the veggie garden now has a nice clean edge. I knew we could have allowed the garden and the lawn simply to butt into each other, but I also knew it would bother me whenever I looked at it. In the future, I’d like to add another layer of blocks so that the veggie garden is level, since right now it slopes on each side. But I’ll have to save up to buy the blocks. In the meantime, at least it is segregated from the lawn on the side that faces the house.

Our next task was removing some of the soil in the long, thin planting bed to make space for the lawn to flow onto and off of the sidewalk. But where to put the soil? We could have carted it away, but it came in handy to solve another problem with this yard: the drastic changes in grade from one part of the yard to another. As we dug out parts of the ornamental bed, we used the soil to fill in the lowest points of the yard that had tended to get waterlogged, as well as to soften the grades in the areas where the slopes were steepest.

Which left us with another problem: Large patches of bare soil that had to be covered with grass. At this point, my landlords were probably thinking they should have just bulldozed everything and put down sod. But they had to cover those bare patches, so after comparing prices of sod vs. seed, they decided to sow seed and cover it with grass seed mat. And that probably would have worked brilliantly, if I hadn’t given them this piece of advice: Put down a layer of compost before sowing the grass seed. They diligently followed this advice, spending a day screening a truckload of municipal compost and applying it to the bare patches, and then sowed the seed. And then they faithfully watered twice a day for the next few weeks. The municipal compost proved to be full of seeds for yellow nutsedge, the pernicious weed commonly known as water grass or nutgrass, which simply adores being watered twice daily. It is now threatening to overpower the new turfgrass. Sigh. Sometimes it ain’t easy being green! I am hoping that this weed becomes less of a problem once we cut back on the watering regimen, but we may be dealing with it for some time now that is has gained a foothold. I am looking into using dry molasses to control it organically. If any of you have had success with this, please let me know in the comments below. And stay tuned!

Once the contours of the yard were established and the outlines of the lawn filled in, one of the largest tasks remained: Preparing the soil of the main ornamental bed for planting. As I mentioned in my previous post, this bed had been given little attention for the past two decades or so, and was therefore full of stumps surrounded by colonies of weeds, chief among them Canada thistle and field bindweed. We knew this when we started. What we didn’t know was how much else was hiding underground. My house was built in 1910, before the advent of indoor plumbing in the neighborhood. I suspect that what remained of the privy was buried in part of the garden. What’s more, municipal waste disposal didn’t exist either, and part of the yard had apparently been used for burning/burying household trash. As I began to dig the bed, I uncovered bricks, large rocks, broken glass, car parts, and children’s marbles, among other things. Some had probably been dumped into the outhouse when it was retired. This was obviously going to take longer than I had thought. I realized the whole bed would have to be double-dug if the plants were going to have a fighting chance. The soil itself was fine—a perfect texture, the consistency of chocolate cake—but it was just so full of stuff! Here’s what a patch of it looked like before screening:

Garden soil before screening—very chunky

Garden soil—a.k.a. “the debris field”—before screening. Very chunky!

And here’s a small patch about 3 feet square, after about 2 hours of double-digging and screening:

Garden soil after screening—very smooth!

Garden soil after screening—very smooth!

This is when my landlords began working to earn their Merit Badges for Gardening Under Duress. Since I fold like a cheap lawn chair when temps hit the 90s, I was out of commission for at least a week during this last heat wave, so they stepped in and double-dug the entire bed. I suspect my landlady’s son has earned enough good will points to last him the whole summer, if not the year. He helped her on some of the hottest days this year—or ever—for our area. Whew! I kept reminding them that this only needed to be done once, but I still felt guilty.

Well, not too guilty. I wasn’t exactly idle while all of this was going on. I was choosing the plants for the new garden.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not work; that’s the fun part!”

Obviously, you have never seen my spreadsheets:

PlantSpreadsheetIn my next post, I’ll explain the method behind my obsessive-compulsive madness!

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