Are You Fit Enough to Garden?

Okay, so “Are You Fit Enough to Garden?” is a bit of a trick question. “Gardening” is a scale-able hobby. When most people think “garden,” they envision plot of land set aside for plants. But container planting, patio gardens, and windowsill gardens exist. Therefore, caring for a pint-sized potted succulent is as much “gardening” as cultivating several dozen flowers covering an entire front yard.

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The top half of this woman is built like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in his prime bodybuilding and action years.

Over the half-dozen years that I’ve owned my house, digging in the dirt and watching seeds and young plants flourish under my hand has brought me a lot of satisfaction. That’s the main reason I decided to branch out from just my backyard gardens to replacing my front lawn with a garden. But here’s the thing:

I wouldn’t be able to garden like this if I weren’t fit.

I don’t have the luxury of throwing money at non-essential projects. While a garden might be an essential part of my emotional well-being, yard projects aren’t as dire as, say, repairing the broken air conditioning in the middle of a southern summer. If I want a big garden (or some other intensive project), I can’t hire laborers. If I want to complete these projects without hurting myself, I must maintain a fit body.

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Even though I’m holding the sledge here, imagine that I’m the hammer and my body is the concrete getting totally wrecked.

My front yard revamp requires a ton of heavy materials:

  • Over 80 2 cu. ft. bags of mulch (average moisture):  260 pounds
  • Over 130 retaining wall blocks:  1,040 pounds
  • Lumber for the fence:  600 pounds
  • Around 30 bags of stones:  600 pounds

And I haven’t even gotten everything yet! We’re already at 2,500 pounds loaded into my car and toted around the yard. Let’s also not forget the drama of The Tiller, which was far too light. But instead of being easier, I had to push and pull harder. The lightness of the machine required more physical labor to dig into my yard and rip up the grass.

I haven’t always been so fit.

Back in January, I made a commitment to myself to work out in the mornings. Evening workouts were too easy to dismiss in favor of plans with friends or post-work fatigue. I’m happy to say that this is the most I’ve adhered to a workout routine in my entire life. Here’s all I do:

  • Tuesdays and Thursday:  run
  • Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays:  strength train (upper body, abs, and hamstrings/butt)
  • Weekends: rest – or more likely, do yard work
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Not me; I have more fat and red hair. But when I’m rockin’ and rollin’ with confidence, this is how I see myself.

As much as I hate to acknowledge physical boundaries and limitations, they do exist. I’ve found that as my yard work in the evenings has grown – especially when I do it for several days or weeks straight – my morning workouts must scale back. Otherwise, no matter how much I sleep or eat (or what I eat), I walk around in a state of perpetual exhaustion, and I start to resent the project. That’s kinda the opposite of the intent – I’m hauling these bags of mulch and lengths of lumber because I enjoy the process and the end result.

In terms of running, I’ve dropped from running six miles in a stretch to four and a half. My strength workouts are shorter – closer to half an hour rather than a hour.

Activity and nutrition are closely tied.

Personally, my morning workouts go much more smoothly when I have grilled vegetables and chicken for dinner the night before instead of saucy, fried Chinese takeout.

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Dagnabbit. Now I want takeout.

Although I track what I eat and try to stay within calorie and macro-nutrient guidelines, I also listen to my body.

I’m not normally a big meat eater, but lately, I’ve been craving steak. So when I went grocery shopping the other night, a tray of juicy, red filets found its way into my cart. And holy cow, my energy rebounded after dinner.

I, like many women, am borderline anemic, which is to say:  Ladies, if you work your body hard, make sure you’re consuming plenty of iron!

So to circle back to the question in the title, yes, you are fit enough to garden, in some sense of the word. But if you expect to undertake a large, physically-demanding project in the next year or so, starting working out now. Build muscle and endurance. Figure out the best way to feed your body to stave of fatigue. And be prepared to sweat.

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Fence Installation: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!)

Last time in Operation: Chaos into Beauty, we ripped up the lawn. The next step is technically “flowers will be planted” and then, after that, “a fence will be erected.”

However, at this point, I realized the fence should at least start going up first, before I planted anything. Also, we’re going to take a segue, because I totally forgot to mention The Bushes previously.

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Seen here:  The Bushes.

The previous owner planted a low-growing gardenia on the outside corners of the house, with Indian hawthorn in between. How much Indian hawthorn? WAY MORE THAN I EVER IMAGINED.

I had to remove to bushes.

My original plan for the bushes involved gently digging them out and finding a new home for them. They’re good bushes – shiny green leaves, little berries that the bird enjoy. pretty white flowers – but I never liked the idea of having bushes right next to the house. First of all, it’s very common, and I want my house to stand out. Secondly, I’ve also heard that having dense vegetation next to your house invites pests to intrude and damage the structure.

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A charming home for all the neighborhood pests.

Several times during the Day of the Digging, I wet the ground under the bushes (it hadn’t rained in a week, so the ground was pretty dry and hard). The dirt was nice and soft, but holy bananagrams, these bushes were deeply rooted. I ended up using a large set of loppers to basically chop the bushes to the ground in order to dig them up. Fortunately, I chose to get rid of the bushes the night before garbage day, because they ended up just going out on the curb. Wasting perfectly good bushes pained me, but they were totally mangled by the time I cleared them out.

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I decided to keep the gardenia’s on either corner of the house, as they have less compact branches and a slightly funkier look than the traditionally round leaves of the Indian hawthorn.

Aaaaah, my house has breathing room now. And I really like the light brick skirt! I find it very charming.

So now onto the fence! Finally!

The overall plan for transforming my yard from grass into garden entailed several steps:  tilling, covering the tilled dirt with thick brown paper, and laying several inches of mulch on the top. Then, when I’m ready to plant, I’ll cut little Xs into the paper, place the seedlings inside, and put the paper and mulch back in place to minimize the chance of grass or weeds poking through.

I realized that if I planted before setting the fence posts, I’d be doing a lot of awkward rearranging of paper and mulch for the fence post holes. It made more sense to set the posts, then lay down the paper and mulch around them.

The fence will only be about three feet tall, but the home improvement stores don’t sell tiny posts. I ended up cutting eight-foot 4x4s in half with my circular saw (and yay! it was way easier than expected). As the posts were so short, I only dug about two feet into the ground. Then several inches of pea gravel went into the hole. Tamp down the the gravel and set the post inside to see how high it sits. To make sure my posts were even, I laid a 2×4, broad side flat, across the hole and measured from the 2×4 to the top of the post.

If I were a better blogger, this space would have a progress picture, but dangit, sometimes I just get so into the work that the rest of the world falls away.

Once the post was even (height-wise, as well as checking the sides with a level), I braced it with two narrow lengths of wood nailed to perpendicular sides. Then Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete Mix went in until a few inches below the lip of the hole, to be followed by a gentle spray of hose water until the hole was filled. After ten minutes or so, the concrete started to set and the space between the concrete and the lip of the hole was filled with dirt.

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Eeeh, more or less like this, but much less neat. Source.

I spent the better part of a Sunday setting fence posts.

Fortunately, as they’re on the shorter side, they went pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I needed 15. I finished 10 that day and did the rest over the next day or two.

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Orange spray paint courtesy of the utilities company. Even though there was almost no way I was going to dig deep enough to hit a utility line, I still called 811.

I was extra fortunate to have some friends who volunteered to come over and help. They dug the trench that is slowly turning into a dry creek bed, to the left of the sidewalk in the above photo. My region gets some pretty heavy downpours during the summer, which overwhelm the soil under my porch’s rain chain. The dry creek bed will divert the extra water toward the street drain.

Around the time I set the last of the fence posts, exhaustion began to creep in. I was still doing my morning workouts (more on that in a future post), then working a full day before coming home to the front yard in the evenings. One of the downsides of being a singleton doing all her own work is just that – if I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done! Especially on a large project, there’s only so much a human body can do each day, which is frustrating. Not only do I want to see the finished project, the weather will only get hotter over the next few months.

But for now, the days are sunny and warm and the nights are pleasantly cool . . .

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< Step 2:  How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

Step 4:  Laying the Foundation for the Garden >

Weak? Puh-lease.

This started as a side note on my tilling post, but it quickly grew too large to include on that. It won’t be lighthearted and fun. This post might even sound complainy. But I need to get something off my chest: I am not weak.

The home improvement store is where people have tried to tell me that I’m not strong enough.

I’m 5’4″ and female. While I’m not visibly stout or hulking, I regularly (and easily) carry 50-pound bags of chicken feed or landscape rocks. It’s not uncommon for people to force – yes, force – help on me when I’m loading my cart or car at the home improvement store. They’ll either step in without asking, or they ignore the several times I say, “No, thanks; I’m fine” and step in anyway.

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My Victorian sister and I share facial expressions.

While dismissing my consent* is not an unimportant problem, the unstated issue here seems to be: I appear weak, and therefore, I must be weak. No questioning. No watching me demonstrate my capability (or perhaps, watching but not accepting the demonstration).

Is there a solution when others assume you’re weak?

A man started loading my retaining wall blocks into my car after I said “no” three times. Afterwards, I drove off and left him to deal with the unwieldy cart. This was a big deal because I always replace the cart. Frankly, I feel like the next step’s going to involve kicking someone in the shins. However, getting banned from the store for violence will put a serious damper on my ability to complete yard projects.

An appearance thing? A regional thing?

Interestingly, a good friend who is several inches taller, a bit stouter, and wears her hair short and brilliant purple hasn’t dealt with the “helpers” I’ve faced. She also lives in a Mountain state. Unwelcome help might, in part, be a southern thing.

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“Jim, I know being a southern gentleman is a core part of how you see yourself, but doesn’t it seem like trampling all over a woman is the opposite of that idea?”

As a lone woman tackling larger house and yard projects, there is one problem I continually face: underestimation of capability.

“Oh, you poor thing,” some may be say. “Your huuuge problem is people are trying to help you.” And sure, on the one hand, it’s nice to reveal a finished chicken coop or garden and have friends and family gush their amazement at what you single-handedly created. However, it’s frustrating – and sometimes extremely discouraging and disheartening – to hear at nearly every step before that, “you’re too weak to do this.” Even though I may, at that very moment, be performing the physical labor, onlookers say, “No, you can’t.”

This post serves a few purposes. As stated in the beginning, it’s an issue I wanted to get off my chest. But also, if you’re a woman who wants to build sheds or paths on your own, don’t be surprised if you face what I’ve described too. You aren’t alone, and you’re strong enough.

*an older acquaintance also argued that these men were raised to help women, and they just “didn’t know any better.” This comment, while well intentioned, really got under my skin because it erases my personhood and makes me, instead, a tool or object in the life of the “helper.”

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Tiller Mania: How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

As a refresher, we’re in the midst of Operation: Chaos into Beauty, which consists of totally revamping the front of my teeny little city property. Last time, we watched my driveway turn from a narrow, broken strip of concrete and weeds into a spacious, organized set of turfstone pavers. The next step is, “The grass is getting ripped up and/or smothered,” so that’s where we are in this post. My lawn-annihilation tool of choice was the tiller.

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Get ready to go underground, you blades of nuisance.

There are a few different methods for getting rid of a lawn. I’m not keen on herbicide, not just because I have to be careful about what might get into my chickens’ and ducks’ systems (even though they stay in the backyard), but because I didn’t want to kill off the dichondra seedlings in my driveway or the new plants I’d be sowing in the garden. Smothering and decomposition would work, but I would’ve had to start that last fall. Finally, I’ve tried solarization (laying a clear sheet over grass and “cooking” it) in the past with no success. That method also requires several weeks, which I didn’t have. So that leaves . . .

TILLING!

A few days after the driveway demolition and installation, I took a Friday off of work (I was originally planning to work outside all of Saturday, but the forecast called for storms). I’d spent all week researching tillers on the local tool rental website and had found the perfect one.

My requirements:

  • The tiller needed to cut through tough sod and heavy clay soil.
  • I needed to be able to operate it by myself (I run and strength train, but I’m no body builder).
  • The tiller had to fit in the back of my Toyota RAV4 (and I had to be able to lift it in and out by myself).

And of course, when I rolled up to the tool rental counter, the employee informed me that my carefully researched choice – the Mantis XP – would not suit my needs at all. A key factor in selecting the Mantis XP was the claim of heavy-duty power in a lightweight (35-pound) model. Apparently that wasn’t quite true. She suggested the lightest of the heavier duty tillers, the Honda F220.

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Or as I like to call it, “The Tined Terror of Tremors.”

I enjoy trying new things and working outside, but the closest things to a tiller I’ve operated is a lawn mower. I was so anxious about using the tiller that, after picking it up, I decided to run errands for the next hour. When I finally returned to my house, the day was starting to get niiiice and hoooot.

Safety nerds, unite!

If an activity requires a helmet, you bet I’ll have one strapped on. So I dug my old composite-toed boots out of my closet and wore thick jeans, gloves, long sleeves, glasses, and a ball cap to keep the sun off my face. I fancied myself a real landscape pro.

The finally, finally, I wheeled the tiller onto my lawn and started it up. Very little happened. Guys, at 53 pounds, this thing was way too lightweight.

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I might as well have been smacking my lawn with this feather.

Most of my yard sits in direct subtropical sun, so the grass that has survived has grown in thick, tough mats. Combine that with hard clay soil (which I thoroughly wetted leading up to TillerMania), and you have a yard that reeeally doesn’t want to change.

Tiller Trial and Error

I started out by letting the tiller mostly propel itself forward, while I tugged back on the handles to provide some resistance. I figured I’d let the machine do most of the work. Well, in order to do any work, the tiller had to make about 20 passes over a patch of ground. Ugh.

Finally, I figured out that to really get the tiller to dig in, I had to either pull it backwards or dig in my heels and just let it sit in one spot until it chew up that sod. My front yard is, oh, a thousand or so square feet, and I spent about five hours tilling, only stopping for short water breaks. The funny thing is, while I was tilling, I didn’t feel tired at all. It was only when I took a break that I realized my arms hung by my sides like dead lengths of rope. And all that work led to this result:

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Welp, that’s disappointing.

As you can see, I did not end up with the fluffy, luscious soil that the internet said I should have. But at least most of the grass is dead. This is not ideal, but it is workable. My plan already included laying down thick brown paper and several inches of mulch, which should take care of the surviving grass and anything that tries to sprout.

If I ever have to till another yard, I’m getting the next size up in tillers, even though it’s 70 pounds heavier. I will find a daggum way to get it into and out of my car.

Side note:  A few days after tilling, I learned that rotting grass stinks, particularly if you have huge clumps of it all over your yard. Before I realized the source of the smell, I was afraid I’d nicked an unreasonably shallow sewer line. The dead grass does not just pleasantly decompose into the soil to create rich nutrients. Sooo keep that in mind if you plan to annihilate your yard anytime soon.

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< Step 1:  Demolishing & Installing a Driveway

Step 3:  Installing a Fence: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!) >

Hello, Pond! Or, So You’ve Realized Your Backyard is an Arid Wasteland of Despair

Perhaps the sound of flowing water soothes you. Maybe you want a spot for birds to drink and bathe.  Even if your house sits on a busy street and the only birds that visit are screeching blue jays, the day might arrive when you decide that your backyard must have a pond, and you must begin work that very afternoon with nothing more than high expectations and your own two hands.

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This desert just needs a charming little pond to spruce it right up!

Planning Your New Pond

Expect this project to cost between $50 and $30,000, depending on how well you can control yourself from impulse buys at home improvement stores (note:  inflatable dragons are unnecessary for this project). You will need a shovel, decorative rocks, a pump, a filter box made from a Rubbermaid storage bin, filters, a pond liner, and enough paving stones to hold the liner along the pond’s edge. Later, you will also need an actual filter box because the Rubbermaid bin has split down the sides and failed entirely.

Next, decide on the location of your pond. This could be right outside your back door, where there might already be a covered outlet to power your pump. Maybe the oak tree in your neighbor’s yard shades this patch of land and will prevent the fish you plan to add from boiling alive in the subtropical sun. This is a good spot. (Never mind that the tree also dumps leaves year round, and you’ll spend every other day scooping them out of the water. Now’s the time to dig and dream, not think about long-term consequences!)

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The finished project will definitely look exactly like this.

If you prefer not to flail around with a heavy, uncooperative sheet of black, stinky PVC, you can buy preformed pond liners of hard plastic, like kiddie pools with shelves. These are expensive, and the shape and depth constraints of a preformed pond liner can be frustrating when dealing with the sticky hell-clay that makes a poor excuse for your yard. Okay, maybe just buy the PVC liner that looks like a big black tarp and reeks of plastic off-gassing. Don’t worry about toxins leaking into the water; they probably won’t kill your fish and turn your charming pond into a noxious dead zone.

Building the Darn Thing

After an hour or so of battling the hell-clay with an ineffective shovel, you’ll realize that you need to determine the size and shape of your pond. Above-ground ponds fluctuate temperature more frequently than in-ground ponds. They also require additional costs in terms of material for the pond walls. Digging an in-ground pond will seem like the easier route. You might aim for an oval five feet long and three feet wide. Two feet is the recommended minimum depth for a pond with fish. It’s also the perfect depth for grabby little raccoon paws to snatch up your pets.

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Be prepared for your new pets:  fifteen of these rolly-polly fish thieves.

Regrets

After the second hour of ineffectual digging into your sticky hell-clay, you may be second-guessing your plans (what plans? you’re living in the moment!). Try to live somewhere with soft, pliable dirt, such as Iowa or in an episode of  TLC’s Gardening By the Yard. If that is not an option . . . eh, well, your pond hole is probably deep enough.

Although you planned for twenty-four inches of depth, eighteen should be enough for a subtropical climate that doesn’t see a hard freeze every winter, right? The ground will also insulate your pond. Yeah, this is sounding better.

Oh wait, but you hit a pipe twelve inches below the left half of your pond. Definitely stop digging. You were supposed to call 811 to have your utilities marked before starting, but you didn’t, did you? That’s okay; we’re living in the moment. Now your pond will have two depth levels. Fancy.

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Like this! And not at all like a muddy hole in the ground.

Wrestle the pond liner into the hole and weigh it down with decorative rocks. As the pond fills with water of questionable quality from your hose, try to figure out what to do with the mountain of leftover, sticky hell-clay. Keep in mind that wherever you shovel it, the mountain will not dissolve. It will linger like the bad memory of joking about someone’s hearing only to later discover that they were deaf.

Arrange stones around the perimeter of the pond to hold down the liner’s edge. Stack more stones (perhaps ones you have “borrowed” from a public park; judgment-free zone!) into a waterfall at the shallow edge. Place your pump in the deep end of the pond, and run a hose along the pond’s edge from the pump to the waterfall. The two-tier structure will help ensure water circulates from one end of the pond to the other. Claim the design was intentional. So fancy.

Adding Life

Most sources advise waiting a month or more before adding fish so the water can develop a nitrogen cycle. You, however, are special and do not need to wait. Wearing smears of brownish-gray mud like war paint, drive to the pet store. Leave a trail of clay clumps from the parking lot to the wall of glowing cerulean tanks. Your pond is, oh, 200 gallons? Capacity doesn’t matter. Buy around 30 of those little feeder goldfish. When the associate asks what you’ll be feeding, jokingly say “raccoons.” Look into the little black eyes of your new pets. Gulp down the guilt. Circle of life and all that.

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These are koi. Only buy these for your whim-pond if your other hobbies include throwing money at the ocean.

If one day you worry that having a giant hole right beside your house’s foundation might be causing the structure to shift, you can adapt these steps and rebuild. Perhaps you’ll try an above-ground pond and avoid slogging through more of that miserable clay. And maybe after that, you’ll decide an in-ground pond is better after all, and hey, let’s add a little winding stream and ducks and tadpoles and stop lecturing me about self-control, Mom.

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