Posts Tagged ‘retaining walls’

I can’t help it:  baby vegetable plants make my heart sing and my hands reach for the camera to capture their juvenile beauty.

These beets and turnips will soon fill their planting bed with lovely foliage, shading the soil, conserving moisture, and providing my steamer pot with lots of fresh greens for dinner.  As ordinary as it may be to some folks, growing my own food still delights me, excites me, motivates me.

And I need all the motivation I can get, to finish the next terrace above so I can build a second garden bed and grow even more food.  Bushels of beans and tomatoes to can, onions and potatoes and carrots to store; our food supply for months to come is just a wish, a dream, until I finish excavating the dirt, build the back wall, dig out the bed area, and fill it with growing soil.  Oh, and plant it all, too.

This weekend I nearly got the dirt moving all done, working an hour at a time and resting well in between.  I wanted badly to finish the project completely, but my legs turned to concrete by mid-afternoon, and I was so drained I had to lie down on the living room floor and take a nap.

Thankfully, there are just a few more trugs of dirt to haul up to the gigantic pile above.  Maybe 30 trips up those steps, which are just a working stairway I cut into the hill and reinforced with concrete block, giving me a shorter trip up to the top.  It saved me many steps, and will be the last part of this second level to be cut away, leaving a clear run to lay the first course of what will be my third wall.

I’m planning to begin wall-building next weekend, and with three whole days off, my determined scottish workhorse self is already visualizing getting the wall completely built over the weekend.  That’s a lofty goal and I may not achieve it, but that won’t keep me from trying.


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We returned from Kentucky to a persistently rainy February in the Golden State.  Total precip was only 2.25″, but it rained 20 days out of the month.  Great for gardens and filling reservoirs, not so good for wall-builders. 

Then March arrived with a hint of lamb, beautiful, warm and sunny, promising weeks of perfect projecting weather.  That all changed the next day.

So it goes.  Of the last 8 weekends, we’ve had rainstorms during six.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little rain in southern California – water being the precious, disappearing resource that it is here – but damnit, Jim, I wish it would pour during the work week, so all us movers of soil can get something done on our few days off.

Even so, despite the weather I’ve made slow, steady progress on the back hill terrace building since we returned from the Farm, mostly in the hour or so of daylight after work, since the weekends have been wet, very wet.  As you can see, the second wall’s done, but the hard part of building the second terrace is still ahead.  There’s still an awful lot of ice plant to pull out and shred, and the hill is steeper here than at the bottom, which means there’s more soil to remove. 

I’m slowly working away at both.  With the help of my trusty Troy-bilt chipper-shredder, Chewie (named after the Star Wars Chewbaca), I am turning tons of overgrown ice plant into shredded mulch and building compost piles, lots of them.  I’m not sure how I would accomplish this project without the ability to convert this enormous volume of plant material into something useable, as there is so much of it, and the backyard is very small.  Disposing of garden trimmings here in suburbia usually means leaving bins out curbside for the collection trucks, but with Chewie at my service I’ve never had to let a single branch or pile of leaves go to waste.  This project is, however, the most he’s had to contend with, and it’s slow going, feeding the tangled, fleshy vines and old roots through.  But we’re getting there.

Moving the dirt is slow work, too.  Like the Incas building their high mountain terrace gardens in the Andes, I am carving out and hauling away the overburden by hand, in trugs, some of it going downhill to widen and level out the bottom edge, but most of it will have to be walked up the steps to the top of the yard, and piled somewhere until I figure out how much I will need for fill and what will be excess to give away.  The few inches of topsoil is getting peeled off before digging out the decomposed granite, to add to my stockpile of topsoil for the growing areas once construction is done.  

So the routine has been going like this:  I escape the squadron as early as I reasonably can, drive 40 minutes home through freeway traffic, and head straight out back for an hour or so of work before daylight is gone.  Once it gets dark, it’s time to make dinner, wash up dishes, and drag myself to bed.  Every little bit helps, believe me – last night I carved out  another four feet at the curved corner, and I’m hoping to get enough of the second bed leveled this week to have room to stack the next order of blocks on Monday.  This weekend is Drill Weekend for the Reservists, so we’ll work straight through.  It’ll probably be beautiful and sunny, too!  Just my luck.

But every morning I take a cup of coffee down to the first level and sit to watch the dawn break over the canyon, and listen to the  birds start to wake up and begin their songs, and I’m newly energized to do whatever little bit I can do that day, even if it’s just a few loads of dirt or a couple of trugs filled with ice plant hiked up the hill.  Because I can see the finished project in my mind’s eye, and remember what the hill looked like before I started, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the process of transforming the one thing into the other.  I could pay someone to do this, but it wouldn’t be the same.

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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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