Now that even Mary agrees that the inside is ‘Mary-ready’, Mary is ready to start landscaping.
For starters, can’t we do something about the view? The view was already pretty good, but with a chainsaw as my paintbrush, I set out to improve it. I took out some trees that had died from being too tall and were blocking parts of the horizon. I took out some ugly swamp trees and, after digesting the improvement for a week, took out a stand of birch that was smack in the way. What’s left, we think, is much-improved.
But chainsawing is not like putting in tile, where ‘prep’ is the work, and putting in the tile is the prize. With chainsawing, dropping the tree is the fun part, and then you’ve still got to clean up all the logs and branches. So after I felled the first couple of trees, I got right to work moving the logs into a pile. This is hard work and, in a contest between man and machine, Man won when the tractor belched blue smoke and died. The backhoe needs work, leaks hydraulic oil, and was -ahem- 2 gallons low. I’ve fixed the tractor several times since then, but the logs and branches are still down, so I guess you could say I’ve bought the much-improved view on credit: I owe it a lot more work.
(Like cats, machines communicate with one another in ways we don’t understand, and I think they were saying ‘double-or-nothing’ when the lawn mower belched blue smoke and died the other day. I re-built the carburetor, straightened the frame, and fixed the tire, and now it it’s fine.)
The fundamental problem with the landscape is that it’s too flat near the house. The yard could be gussied up a bit, but let’s solve the underlying problem first. The house is built on a slope, and sited a little deeper than it probably ought to be. On 3 sides, the grade is basically flat, and doesn’t do shit to shed the water. This needed to be fixed.
The roof has 2 valleys, and when it rains, they become “point sources” of runoff for 800sf of roof apiece. One of them is 19′ off the ground, and it looks like something from Yosemite when it rains. The other one pours off in a stream big enough to have fish in it. All this water hits the ground and doesn’t know where to go.
So the plan was to bury drainage pipes from under the roof valleys to daylight, and then re-grade the surfaces so downhill would always be away from the house.
That’s a lot of dirt, and there was no question of man-vs-machine this time: we rented an excavator, with Ashton to run it. Ashton works for Mary and is Bernie’s son. Very sharp in his own way, with his finger on the pulse of everything that happens in town. Ashton’s done excavation before, so I started off by giving him guidelines and a long leash. It didn’t take long before I joined in, though, with the tractor, a shovel, or Dad’s old K&E hand level. By the end of day 1, we’d graded the south (uphill) side of the house and started on the west side.
Day 2, we tweaked the grade on the west, where the level of the foundation is not much higher than the base of the mound. This led to some head-scratching, trying to come up with a way to make the runoff flow away from the house, uphill around the mound and into the woods. We solved it the usual way: By adding rocks.
Next, we tackled the North (downhill) side, which was dead-level, if that, for 50 feet out from the house, and a muck-hole in the rain. We had to work around the septic tank and pump station, with their 3 manholes, and a lot of dirt had to be moved.
So Ashton excavated, while I moved the dirt into a huge pile in an out-of-the-way spot. We left an apple tree intact as a reminder of where the original grade had been. The tractor started acting up again and I debugged and fixed a clogged fuel screen and an intermittent contact to a 3A fuse.
We were making good progress, but we weren’t making it look easy.
Ashton was having all the fun, running the excavator, and when he quit for the day, I climbed aboard and tried out the controls. They don’t work like the tractor’s backhoe, and it turns out that there is a schism in the industry between ‘farmer’ and ‘standard’ controls that makes Windows vs Apple look like small potatoes. I never did quite get the hang of it, but after a week of trying, I was getting close, and when I went back to using the tractor, I found I could barely control it. It’s Either/Or.
On Wednesday, with the grade pinned down, we started trenching for the daylight drains. We went the whole nine yards, with fabric, crushed stone, and perforated pipe. We dug 280′ of trench that day and got the pipe laid into the South trench before quitting for the day. The next morning was more of the same on the North side, with an extra bend in the line because –remember the dirt we’d piled up “out-of-the-way”?– it was in the way.
We’d started the landscaping late in the season because there had been non-stop rain during June, and the week we had the excavator was mostly hot and dry. It’s one thing to think we’d solved the runoff problem, but seeing is believing, and what we really needed was a good thunderstorm. We got a doozy a few days later and, with no vegetation in sight, it was a little scary to watch the water puddle up and then gather steam. Bottom line is that it flowed away from the house on all four sides. The swales were awash, the drains flowed, and 15 minutes after the rain stopped, pretty much the whole yard had drained itself into the woods and toward the meadow. Everything worked as-planned.
(The day before the rain came, Mary had set her potted herbs out in the sun and when the storm hit, a shriek rang out from her office. Her basil plant was dead-center bulls-eye underneath the runoff from the roof valley and was rapidly becoming hydroponic. Fresh from a shower and dry in clean clothes, I ran out onto the porch and, like Superman in a phone booth, stripped and rescued the plant. The plant survived.)
With the runoff problem solved, we set about making it pretty. We’re both sick of looking at a muddy expanse of yard, and Mary set right to work planting a lawn. And she doesn’t fool around: she raked it smooth, gathered the clumps, cast the seed, hayed it, and set up sprinklers. She’s been through 3 big bags of seed already, and the folks at Agway want to know how many holes are in our golf course.
We leveled off a space next to the garage that we call ‘the trailer park’ and put in some gravel walkways and garden beds.
Rocks are a landscaper’s duct tape, and there’s nothing they’re not good for. Plus, they’re cheap and abundant. Years ago, someone cleared the land with heavy equipment and pushed the rocks into a heap at the edge of the meadow. I’m guessing this pile is 6′ tall by 30′ wide by 100′ long, and there are full-grown trees growing out of it. It is the mother lode of rocks, waiting to be mined, but it’s hard to get at. So during the week Ashton was here, after he’d quit for the day, I would drive the excavator over to the heap in the woods and pull out rocks. The idea was to clear an access path for the tractor, and to harvest a few boulders the tractor can’t budge.
For the front entry, I wrestled 2 borders into place. Getting rocks to mate with their neighbors, at the right height, and in a smooth curve is waaay harder than it looks, even for little rocks.
We’ve made a lot of progress in July, and it ain’t over, so stay tuned…