Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

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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 The weather-guessers called for another band of rainstorms through here, beginning yesterday, with rain anticipated to fall off-and-on through Sunday.  It’s drizzling now, with hope for as much as an inch in the next couple of days.

My little backyard garden will appreciate that, especially if they are right about the winds being absent.  Monday’s deluge with 40-mph gusts nearly knocked my peas out of their roots.  I tied them up when I looked out and saw the lovely ladies all bent double over their trellises, and they made it through intact with no lasting damage, but I’m sure it was stressful to be blown about like that.

The peas are organic Green Arrow English Peas, from  Heirloom Seeds, first time I’ve grown these.  They dig the cool temps and made good growth despite the short days, climbing to 4 ft high before dressing themselves with jewel-like white flowers.  Now, tiny pea pods dangle like miniature ornaments, promising sweet treats to come.

Gardening in a Mediterranean climate in the winter months is quite extraordinary.  It’s a lot like having a second Spring, with shorter days of course.  I shall miss the luxury of growing brocolli and brussels sprouts, peas and lettuce and scallions, beets and kale, through December and January.  A better gardener than I could have a continuous supply of edibles for the dinner table with nary a gap in harvests, with careful planning and year-round succession planting. 

As it is, I lose track of time, forget to start the next round of seeds, and we suffer the occasional short hiatus from ultra-local, organic home-grown food.  But peas are on their way, two plantings spaced 3 weeks apart, the leaf lettuce is filling salad bowls twice a week already, and I have high hopes for my happy brassicas.

It’s raining lightly but steadily tonight, and the garden is soaking it up.

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mel_and_J_in_garden_008GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH
(from an old English cup)

Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state.
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham;
I shear my own fleece
and I wear it.
I have lawns; I have bowers.
I have fruits; I have flowers.
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now,
Here’s God speed the plough.
Long life and success to the farmer.


No, that’s not a plow behind that horse; it’s a drag harrow.  And no, that’s not me, that’s Mel driving “the ‘J’ mare” as Jason calls her, working the garden on Ridgewind Farm.   But I stumbled across the poem the same day he sent the picture of Mel and J, and for that reason they go together in my mind.

“God speed the plough, ‘a wish for success or prosperity,’ was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough. On this day ploughmen customarily went from door to door dressed in white and drawing a plough, soliciting ‘plough money’ to spend in celebration. “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

I found the poem on Hollin Farms website; another good Virginia farm worth taking a look at.

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Starting the Garden


This is the third summer Alene and Bobby have put in a garden on this 1/4 acre back of the shop building, a little stretch of grass that borders the creek as the road starts up the hill.  They hadn’t gardened for several years, said it was too much work for what they got out of it; but for some reason they decided to pick it up again.  Bobby loves potatoes and onions and tomatoes, and his family always grew subsistence gardens in his childhood years.  I also think my constant mention of gardening in San Diego got them thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea for a couple of old retired folks, to tend to a garden and knock a little off their grocery bill.

The first summer, 2007, was a very dry one, and they went overboard with how much they planted, so they ended up pouring a couple of swimming pools worth of water into it – the water company actually called to ask if they had installed a pool, their useage had jumped so high!  But they got lots of Blue Lake green beans, corn, potatoes and tomatoes out it, freezing the beans, storing the potatoes in the shop and eating the tomatoes fresh.  Swore they weren’t going to garden anymore, though, with the watering being so costly, but you know how gardens are.  Like birthing babies, the pain and effort fades eventually and all that’s left is a hankering to do it again.

Last summer they planted some potatoes, tomatoes, squash and beans, keeping it down to a couple of rows.  I think they finally discovered a “right size” approach that gave them some fresh food without being too much of a hassle.  So, this year they’ve got potatoes, onions, mustard and turnips in again, with some tomatoes growing in pots up by the house, and surely some summer vegetables will make their way in sometime this month.  I’m very happy they’re gardening again, and enjoying it.  

Alene wrote just this morning that the potatoes and onions are up and looking good, despite the cool weather and rain.  She’s measured 18″ of rain so far this year.  Granted, it’s the rainy season, but that’s still quite a lot of rain for four months.  The garden site is well-drained though and gets good sun throughout the day, so it shouldn’t set anything back too far.

I’ll put my kitchen garden somewhere else when I get there in 2011, as this scrap of relatively flat land is destined to have a small barn built on it and paddocks fenced for the horses, so they’ll be close at night while I’m living down near the road in the little house, working and building the barn up on the hill.  It’s a fair stretch of road to the top, and I don’t like the idea of my critters being up there at night so far away from the watchful ears and nose of the farm dog.

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