Monday, September 24, 2012

Front Yard Project, Part 1

We live in the suburbs and you know how much people love their lawns. Well, I hate our lawn -- it's a waste of water and time. I've wanted to pull it out and redo the yard with something less "lawny" for years, but several factors conspired to make us keep the weed-ridden mess.


There's pressure to keep a well-groomed front yard in order to "not hurt the property values" of the neighborhood. If we lived on some acreage, you can bet we wouldn't spend a dime on the front yard!

99% of the houses in our neighborhood have lawns and so it's just a kind of momentum (or lack of inertia) and expectation surrounding "house in the suburbs = front lawn." Plus, we have kids and they love to play on the lawn. Add in the fact that our very good next-door neighbors' lawn actually runs together with ours (literally no separation between the two) and their kids and ours have twice the space for playing. We don't really want to end all of that, but I'm tired of wasting so much water and having to mow so much.

So as a compromise, we're yanking out 2/3rds of the lawn and replacing it with some flagstone and an herb spiral and some other neat stuff. We'll leave the lawn down by the sidewalk so lawn still runs together with the neighbor's and the rest of the neighborhood doesn't get too shocked... :) PLUS, because we will still have some nice lawn, it will hopefully be easier to get moving on the plan to replace some/most/all of the back yard with a garden. And we're replacing our existing irrigation with something that will save even more water.

Of course, we originally entertained thoughts of doing all the work ourselves. The process went like this:

7 years ago: "We'll dig out the lawn and drainage trenches by hand, and do all the rest of the work ourselves!"

5 years ago: "We'll rent a sod cutter, and maybe a trencher, but do the rest ourselves."

3 years ago: "We'll hire out the drainage work but definitely do the rest ourselves."

Today: We're hiring out everything except for the herb spiral.

Yes, apparently that's our line in the sand: we'll build our own herb spiral using the ugly cement blocks that used to make up some of the "features" in our ugly front yard. They were here when we moved in, and whatever we don't use we'll give away on Freecycle.

The people we hired are experts. They'll know how to make the drainage work (rather than our just guessing) so the house foundation will be safe. They'll use the right tools and do a good job.

I won't kill my back hauling tons of rock, sand, flagstone, dirt, and sod around.

It's a win-win!

Of course, there is the issue of the contractor. We have a terrible track record of picking contractors. But we really like this one, and it's been several years since our last experience/debacle, so we're going to try it again.

The issue we've had is that when we look for a contractor, it's usually the owner/etc. that comes out to the house to take a look. They're usually good at that part of the job. They make lots of promises about how good their team is, how they're clean and respectful, and what a great job they'll do. But then the project manager/foreman comes out and immediately starts looking for ways to cut costs. "My notes don't say anything about that closet!" they argue, even if their boss told us it would be included. Etc. That, and we've had a contractor send out his "B" team, rather than his best guys.

Anyway, we're back on the merry-go-round again, willing to give it another shot.

Fingers crossed!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Self-Sufficiency? Self-Reliance?

I've been reading homesteading/farmsteading/gardening blogs for a couple of years now. I'm far from an expert at any facet of the vast range of subjects involved. We still live in a house in the suburbs. Our garden is laughably small (though we do have three chickens) and we still have to spend 40+ hours a week at our jobs.

Anyway, I've been thinking about how the goal of many homesteaders -- and something I've been enamored with the thought of -- is becoming self sufficient. I think some folks mean it literally: "We grown/make everything we'll ever need here on our property." And others tend to strive to get closer to self-sufficiency: "The more we can do ourselves, sustainably, the better."

I think I fall more into the second camp. But there's more to it than that. Self-suffiency might be a misnomer. And there are too many shades of gray.

One thing I do feel strongly about is that we need community. Even if we're able to make or grow or raise everything our family needs, we still need community. We need neighbors and friends. We need teachers and mentors.

Of course, it's much easier to say this than to make it happen, especially for an introvert like me.

Whenever I read a blog post about someone with a large project they're working on, I wish I lived nearby so I could help. I love helping out with projects, even (especially?) the manual labor aspect, where just trying hard and spending calories can really make a difference in someone else's success or happiness or well being. I love that. I don't have many (any?) specialized skills and the ones I do have are really not that well suited to farmstead life. But I can carry stuff. I can move stuff. I can dig, pull, push, chop, swing, pound. I'm reminded of "crop mobs."

When my next door neighbor was working on his chicken coop I was over helping whenever he'd let me, but it took me literally TEN years of living next door before I was comfortable enough to approach him. Did I mention I'm shy?

I read about clubs that meet and people who offer classes for homesteaders and the various skills/trades that are associated with it. That's what we need more of. As people learn to grow more of their own food -- for whatever reason -- and live a more basic and sustainable life, they'll need help getting there. We'll need teachers and mentors. Luckily there are so many great people out there on the Internet willing to share and to teach. It's a community of its own.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Garden Expansion Ideas

(Our back yard, from several years ago, prior to new lawn/etc.)

If we were to remove some (the right half, or about 13x21 ft.) of the lawn in the back yard (still hoping I can convince the dear wife and make this happen), we'd finally be able to expand the garden. We rebuilt/expanded the boxes (extreme right in the picture) two seasons ago, but we still don't have enough garden space for what I'd like to see us accomplish. Here are some of my thoughts about the project...

 - Chicken moat running around it, connecting to their existing run/area (currently it's everything to the right of their coop/run, and above the lawn). Possible pro: would increase sqfts of roaming space, they'd get more weeds/bugs, we could take back the upper right corner of the yard to use for whatever (move the compost back there?), since they'd have roaming space around the moat. Cons: messy? Need more/taller fencing? One small breach could lead to chickens eating an entire planter box of garden. THAT SAID, we will probably cage most of the stuff anyway (darned squirrels!)... More cons, can't make it a true moat unless we either always wear chicken shoes in the garden, move some planter boxes, or deal with larger hassles wrt access.

 - Maybe make a diagonal path from corner by the lime tree (lower right, not pictured) to coop (top middle), "cutting through" the planter boxes/raised beds so they have diagonal ends. Would we want a more meandering path? or just go with the more simple right angles?

 - QUESTION: What will the paths be? If not chicken moat, should they be: Grass (leave grass in place for the paths, that would look really cool, but might require watering...)? Spoiled hay? Cardboard? Pavers? Gravel? Need to keep the weeds down, but it should look nice, too. Also, should be mud free in the winter. I'm not usually a fan of gravel, but I can get it fairly cheaply... Spacing? Need a three foot gap between boxes, usually, right?

 - Series of "skinny" raised beds with "horizontal" gaps (from left to right across long part of lawn)? Or maybe smaller (4x4? 3x3?) "pods"? Or how about a "corral" type garden with a single entrance on the bottom center, leading in to central aisle... Turns out there are so many interesting variations, I sketched up about 10 that I liked (none have a chicken moat, though). I think we'll need to compare several factors: aesthetics, capacity/throughput, sun/shade, rotation, winter crops, etc.

 - Pomegranate... Remove? Severely prune? Get consultation from fruit tree expert? Three fruits in 10 years is not a ringing endorsement. It's using up valuable space and although it's my favorite fruit, and the blooms are an amazing color, I think I'd rather plant something there that will produce.

 - RESEARCH: Pomegranate fruiting on new or old wood?

 - Replace pomegranate with our existing lime, mandarin orange, or lemon tree?

 - Build window box planter utilizing the freecycled windows. Honestly, though, how much would we use this? In our zone, we get frost maybe two or three times a winter, if that...

 - Need a corn zone, we know we want to grow it, we just need to find the best place.

 - Find plants to grow inside chicken zone (very top, above the lawn -- in the picture above you can see day lilies and even our old bird of paradise before the chickens dug it up and killed it) for shade/flowers, would have to protect them well, so it's hard for something to look good when it's wrapped in chicken wire or whatnot.

 - Grow sunflowers: 1] in a huge wire cage, 2] as a distraction/sacrificial crop, 3] not at all (darned squirrels!)

 - Espalier? Could remove boxes from "window box planter location" and instead plant an apple/etc. to be espaliered against the fence on the right-most side...

 - Could remove existing lawn section one strip at a time over the winter, letting the chickens eat it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


We've been alternating between ignoring the garden while on vacation and doting over every bloom. It's been an interesting year, garden-wise.

I'm not at all happy with the pomegranate. It is taking up prime garden real estate and if I'm going to give up that spot to a fruit tree, it may as well be something that will produce.

The new bed where we put pumpkins is working quite well. The sunflowers in that bed grew like mad, only to be tackled and devoured by squirrels. Grrr.

The pumpkins are doing well. We have 4 pumpkins growing. Two are full grown (one small sugar pie, and one much larger carving pumpkin) and two that are lagging -- but we're hopeful.

The volunteer tomato turned out to be the star of the show, generating way too much for us to keep up with:

We harvested 4 small but very yummy cantaloupes that sprung up out of the cucumber seeds. Oh, and plenty of cucumbers too. The tomatillos are coming along slowly, and something has nibbled on a few of them. I don't have high hopes for getting many. Bell peppers did well, too.

We're growing a third run of radishes. We grew onions that came out perfect and so we'll be doing that again. A volunteer potato shot up so we'll let it grow and see what happens. It's almost time to throttle back the automatic irrigation. We're going to plant lettuce/etc. very soon to squeeze one last crop out this year.

Of course, there were setbacks. The potted corn was a bust (you can see some of the "ears" in the picture above).

The shorter days and slight cooling has brought an autumnal mood -- thinking of halloween and corn harvest, falling leaves and pumpkin pie. Our favorite time of year by far! We're also starting to make plans for next year's garden already.