Archive for January, 2010

This is one of those projects I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time.

All the backyards along our side of Redlands Place perch atop the rim of a spacious and wild chaparral canyon, with half the property in back of the houses comprising a rather steep hill that merges into the hillside below.  Most of our neighbors have installed pools or decks to extend their back yard space; from the beginning I planned to terrace our bit of hillside into garden beds, to take advantage of the south-east exposure.  But there were challenges.

The previous owner had planted two bunches of invasive pampas grass in the bottom corners and a variety of ice plant (also very invasive) along the remaining slope.  The pampas grass had grown into impenetrable tangles of vegetation nearly 20 feet across at the base that took many hours of labor back in 2002 to remove.  Since then I built a rough-hewn set of free-form concrete stairs to the bottom level for access, but with the exception of removing the pampas grass clumps, we’d done nothing to improve the hillside.

But the time has finally come to tame the hill.  My container garden that takes up half the flat part of the backyard needs to expand into a permanent home, and I need room to stage materials for the fence rebuild project.  So energized by my project plan, I inhaled deeply, took measurements, and ordered enough interlocking block to build the bottom wall for the first terrace bed.  The block and half-yard of gravel was delivered Friday, amidst pouring rain and occasional hailstorms.  My goal is to complete the first retaining wall before we leave for our Kentucky farm trip on 6 Feb.

Here is what the hill looked like before I started:

The brown line of dead plants across is the ice plant I pulled out about a month ago, that had grown down from the bottom of the stairs to the fence (out of the picture at the right) at the bottom property boundary.  In one year.   Ice plant is a very vigorous, succulent invasive from South Africa, growing up to a meter in one season and rooting anywhere a stem touches the ground.  Since it needed to dry out a little before running it through the shredder to make into compost,  I threw it uphill as I pulled it.  This current project started with pulling all that half-dried material down to the bottom, and moving it laboriously up the stairs to my utility yard one forkful at a time, where the huge mound of it awaits an afternoon’s work with Chewie, my stalwart Troy-bilt chipper-shredder.

160 Keystone Legacy block will build a 35-foot long, 3-foot high wall.  I spent the afternoon and part of Saturday morning imitating a small draft animal, first carting trugs of gravel down to the bottom and then 4 blocks at a time on my garden cart from the driveway to the edge of the hill in the backyard.  I’d already dug the footer trench for the wall (see first photo) and laid a couple of block when I realized I needed to somehow get all of them down to the bottom before I could really start serious wall building.  So Sunday morning, that is what I did.

My method was what I’d call “ghetto.”  One woman, 160 blocks needing to be moved down 20 feet of ice plant on a 45 degree incline.  Carrying them down the stairs one by one was out of the question.  So I gerry-rigged an old half sheet of plywood backstop against the chainlink fence at the bottom, padded the whole affair with prunings of ice plant, and started rolling 55-lb blocks like bowling pins.

It worked.  No blocks were damaged in the making of this blog post.  And at $3.50 apiece, that’s a good thing.  Man, it was a lot of work, though.   I managed to get three at a time rolled down without hitting each other, then had to clamber down the spongy bed of ice plant to stack them safely out of the way, and climb back up to the top for another round of ghetto block bowling.

After a bit of rest, Sunday afternoon I started laying the first course.  This is the most important element of the wall, these first blocks; they must be perfectly level or everything above will turn out badly.  Following instructions, I laid a couple of inches of sharp gravel down, then set the block.  Ever laid flagstone or brick?  Levelling on a bed of sand is tricky at best; on gravel, near impossible.  So, I cheated a little and used a bit of decomposed granite fill dirt overtop the gravel, to get the level right. 

It’s turning out well.  I’ll backfill with gravel and lay weed-barrier cloth before pulling the dirt down as the courses go up.  More ice plant removal will be required.  Lots of compost to be made, hooray. 

Garden beds are dancing like sugar plums behind my eyelids.  I can’t look at that hill without seeing all three terraced beds completed and a marvelous Spring garden emerging from the compost-enriched soil.


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Things are getting busy here at Bear and Thistle West.

It finally sunk in over the holidays that my time here is short, and if I don’t plan things out I will never finish all the projects I’ve been wanting to do before I have to leave. 

The truth is (and I’m ok with this, really), if I don’t do them, they won’t get done.  Things like painting the house inside and out, replacing the falling-down back fence, rebuilding the termite-eaten pergola over the back patio, re-laying the cracked flagstone pathways over concrete, re-insulating the attic.  Stuff that needs done before the house is sold, several years down the road – basic material condition items that will ensure it gets a fair price and we’ll get as much equity out of it as possible.

Quite a lot of work, you might say, and you’re right.  But I’m loathe to pay someone to do a job I can do myself, and I actually like building and fixing stuff, so I’ll hire out only the most difficult tasks and perhaps the ones I cannot get to for lack of time.

We bought this little stucco and tile roof house nearly 11 years ago, long before I figured out I was a farmer and needed more than an eighth of an acre to be happy; until 4 years ago I thought I had years to tackle all the basic material improvements any 25-year-old residence needs.  After two long deployments and much time on the road, my projecting window is now a mere 22 months long.


So, the time has come to do some serious planning.  And I found just the thing:  a Gantt chart on Google Docs that I can access anywhere, and update and modify as I go along.  It took a few days to populate, and I’m sure my time estimates will need to flex as projects unfold, but what a great help it is, to be able to map out a proposed schedule over the next two Springs, Summers, and Winters (and one Fall), lining up outside work with long daylight months and reserving inside work for winter months.

Will I get it all done?  Maybe, maybe not.  But check it out – I am certain to accomplish more with a plan that lets me focus on one project at a time, knowing that “all that other stuff” will have its time; and the incentive of keeping to a schedule is just the motivation I need to use every little scrap of time gainfully, whether I’m able to stick to the project schedule or not.

I’m stoked.  And I love being stoked.  It’s one of my favorite feelings in all the world.

Project #1, Attic Decking and Re-insulation, evolved into a two-phase job.  It kicked off with the installation of a pull-down attic ladder done back in November, something I’d threatened to do for years, to make the house attic accessible for plumbing repairs and future ventilation upgrades.  Every time we had to drag the ladder in from the garage and climb up through the little access hole, I swore, loudly.   

The ladder had to be framed in offset of the ceiling joists to center on the hallway; a pain in the neck to say the least.  Bear was a great help with the sawzall and demolition, leaving the framing of the opening to me, and we teamed up to get the ladder hung, one person above and one below.  After I hung a couple of fluorescent lights from the trusses I could see where to lay down plywood decking so we weren’t just scrambling around on joists and rafters, and it quickly became apparent that the blown-in insulation was pitifully inadequate. 

So after the holidays I started the decking in earnest, which required adding more insulation, one section at a time, moving about on hands and knees or ducking under the waist-high truss members.  6 sheets of plywood sawn in fourths and five bales of cellulose insulation later, I have a fine storage attic, all holes sealed with foam, plenty of space to walk around, and insulation restored.  The cathedral ceiling portions of the attic, though, still need work.

Which will be Phase Two, done at a later date, because my Project Chart has me starting the back hill terracing and retaining wall construction this week.  I’d like to get that done so my Spring garden can go in those new growing beds, which will open up the backyard for the summer’s fence rebuilding project.

It’s good to have a plan.

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It took a fair bit of self-discipline to pick the first pound of peas (just enough for two servings) and save them for shelling and cooking, instead of eating them like snacks right off the vine.

But it was so worth it.

This is a first for me; I’ve never grown English peas in my backyard garden, so I’ve never tasted the incredible sweet freshness of lightly-steamed new peas next to my steak and baked potato.  Let me tell you, it was heaven.  I could not believe my taste buds.

Thankfully I planted a second crop to follow this one, so we’ll have peas all winter, if all goes well.  I’m stoked.

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Brutal cold is making life difficult in many parts of the country right now.  Even Florida is feeling it, god bless ’em, where fruit growers are spraying fields to protect their fruits with a coating of ice.

Just hunkering down in a warm house is a blessing when it’s this cold.  For all the folks out on roads and highways, this weather is a nightmare; scary, nerve-wracking, unpredictable.  And for those whose fortunes do not currently include a warm house to stay cozy in, it’s life-threatening.

I lived with bitter cold for many years, growing up in northern Colorado.  I remember it well, as do my fingertips; they still tingle with memory of mild frostbite and turn white and numb if I fail to protect them with gloves when the temperature drops.  And looking at Moonmeadow Farm’s  picture of her wood cookstove reminds me of waking up to frigid mornings in a drafty logging cabin at 6,000 ft, shivering out of bed to light a fire in the cold, dark mornings before work.  Yes, I know cold.  It’s been awhile, but I remember it.

It is 24 degrees this morning east of Campbellsville, KY at the Farm, and a light snow is falling.  At Ridgewind Farm in Virginia, where the horses are, it’s 22 but “feels like” 10 degrees, and cloudy.  In Vail, CO where Skidder is working the ski resorts, it’s 10 degrees and cloudy, too.

Out east of Fort Collins, Colorado (my home town) where the good folks of Boyles Family Farms  are hunkered down next to the wood stove, it is minus eleven degrees.  Now that’s cold!

In Bonita, California where I am it is currently 45 degrees and clear.  And it’ll probably get up to 75 this afternoon.  The disparity between our winter temps and what is experienced across the rest of the nation is never far from my mind.  I am mentally bracing myself, I think, to return to the real world of seasons that include the discomfort of cold.

Meanwhile, although it doesn’t take much to warm a 1,500-sq-ft house at this latitude, we burn a small fire in the evenings to take the chill off, with eucalyptus firewood bought locally from Garcia’s Firewood in El Cajon.  My little Toyota Tacoma has to make two trips to bring home half a cord, but that will last us well into next year, so the trouble is worth it.  The ashes enrich my compost pile and the labor of stacking and carrying in keeps me from getting too soft.

Wherever you are this morning, bundle up well when you go outside, shut the doors firmly behind you when you come in, keep the fire well-stoked, and stay warm.

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