Nineteen days ago, our backyard looked like this:
(You can click on the pictures to see bigger versions) This made me sad because, just a little over eight weeks prior to that photo, I’d drawn up the beginnings of a plan to return to gardening after a 30+ year lacuna. I emailed my plan around to the other residents of our condo, they rubberstamped it, and then it snowed. And kept snowing. And then it snowed some more. By the first day of March, Boston had officially had its snowiest winter on record. Most of the snow had stopped by the time that photo was taken, but we were also having an unusually cold March, so all that snow, all 108.6 inches of it, all nine feet of it, took a long time to melt.
Still, I carried on with my planning, through the long cold tail end of winter. I shopped for raised bed materials, I learned about what plants to plant together, and what plants would keep pests away. I shopped for interesting herbs and vegetables, and I ordered seeds. E and I went to Home Depot and stocked up on tools and supplies. I drew up my garden map, ran it by Farmer Andrew, and revised it, and then revised it some more. E even surprised me with a gift of a couple tools I hadn’t thought of, but which are definitely going to get a lot of use. Surely by Easter weekend, I thought, I’d be able to build the garden.
The biggest variable to me though, was how to get enough soil. In the very early stages of this project, I thought we’d just go to a gardening supply shop and pick up a bunch of bags of soil. But as I did the math, I eventually figured out that I was going to need 1.5 cubic yards of planting mix (50% loam, 50% compost). A little more quick back of the napkin math suggested this could mean well over a ton of soil. Not going to pick that up in bags at the nursery. I called around and eventually found a place that could deliver that quantity, and on a Saturday too.
As Easter weekend rolled around, though, the forecast looked like cold and rainy. Not a good day to have a shipment of dirt delivered, which I would then have to cart by wheelbarrow from the front of the property a hundred feet to the back of the property. That was a little disappointing. I was starting to get a little worried about when I was going to get my peas in, since they like cooler weather. What if this was one of those years that skipped spring and went straight into the heat of summer? I was starting to wring my hands a bit, but then last Monday the forecast for Saturday looked like warm and sunny, a perfect day for gardening, or, at least, for building a garden out of nothing at all. I called the soil delivery place and arranged for the 1.5 cubic yards to be delivered yesterday morning. They told me they’d come by between 8 and 10 am, and give me a call when they were on their way.
So, yesterday morning I woke up at 7:30 and had just started breakfast when the phone rang at 7:53: “Our driver will be leaving in 5-10 minutes.” I rushed through my breakfast, and started bringing the tools out to the backyard, which now looked like this:
8:30 rolled around and I started to think maybe I’d misunderstood the nature and purpose of that phone call. Maybe the driver wasn’t on his way directly to my place, maybe he had other stops to make, though I couldn’t really understand how that would work with a dump truck. I stopped waiting on the front porch like an overeager puppy and went out to the backyard, staked some lines, and started digging out a rectangle. I’d talked to a couple other people about what to do with the ground that I was going to put my raised bed on top of, and googled it extensively, and opinions about this step were pretty mixed. In the end, I didn’t really decide what I was going to do after a little exploratory shoveling.
Our house is a gut renovation, and the backyard was completely re-landscaped as part of that. Mostly they just gave it a new lawn. The sod only went in a few weeks before we moved in last fall. Perhaps since it was so new, the sod actually came up pretty easy, in convenient sheets. I figured just turning the sod over would be enough. By the time I was finished my 4×12 rectangle of future awesomeness looked like this:
Before I finished that, though, the dump truck arrived (license plate MULCH7). Our driveway is too narrow for a fat car, let alone a dump truck, so I directed the delivery guy where in front of our house to drop the dirt:
I didn’t know what a yard and a half of soil looked like, and when I saw it there, I quailed just the tiniest bit. It looked like a lot of dirt. It looked like a dirt monster. I mean, I knew it would be a lot, but this was going to be a lot of work to move. It was also pretty wet, so it was going to be fairly heavy. Nothing for it, though. I left the pile of dirt and went back to my sod, finished that up, then went to the next door neighbor’s backyard. The neighbor is a gardener and landscaper and I’d already arranged to borrow a wheelbarrow from him. He had two in fact, and left them both out for me to choose from. I picked the older, smaller, metal and wood single-wheel model, over the larger plastic, two-wheel model for a few reasons. For one thing I had a couple narrow spaces on my route that I’d have to pass through many times, one of which came awful close to a fellow condo resident’s Beemah. For another thing, a single wheel, while it might take more arm strength to steer, would likely give me a little more maneuverability. Finally, it was just such a handsome, well-worn, well-loved piece of equipment. For this last reason alone I probably would have chosen the single-wheel, neglecting all other factors.
I got to work right at nine, alternating between hauling dirt, and building the bed around the dirt as I went. First I built 3 sides of one square, rolled the barrow back, inverted the barrow to dump it, then repeat. When the pile of dirt started to get too big at its base, I’d build the next square:
By the time I’d moved twenty-two wheelbarrowsful of dirt, I was starting to get a little bleary. I was also a little overwhelmed because at 22 wheelbarrows, I was still maybe only about halfway done. The sun had also come up enough that I was no longer in the shade 100% of the time. I took a little break and took this picture:
I went inside, fortified myself with water, a snack, and some sunblock. After 10 minutes I actually felt pretty refreshed, and went back to it. Except now I had a major problem. I’d closed off my squares too soon. I still had at least another 20 barrows to go, but no good way to just dump the barrow into the piles I was making. I thought about shoveling the dirt from the barrow into the boxes, but that seemed horribly slow and inelegant. I was kind of stumped and discouraged for a few minutes. I went into the basement and looked around for ideas. So glad I did, because I found a perfect, sturdy piece of plywood. Except it wasn’t just a piece of plywood once I picked it up, it was my ramp.
At first I tried ramping the wheelbarrow up to the top of the four-board-high backmost square. That didn’t work so great. Too steep a grade, too tough to pivot the wheelbarrow up and over to dump it. So I moved moved some dirt around, took off two boards, and now I had a perfect setup:
This second half of operations was nowhere near as speedy as the first half, but it helped me get the job done. I had to spend a lot more time fussing with the soil as I offloaded it, and time fussing with the boards, taking them off, putting them back on. But, eventually, after 45 full wheelbarrows, I got the dirt from one place to another, more desirable place:
Today I planted my peas. I already have tomatoes, basil, and peppers starting indoors, and lot of other seeds ready to go when the weather gets just a bit warmer. I also have aches where I didn’t know muscles existed. The backs of my fingers even ache. I googled how much a yard of wet topsoil actually weighs, and it turns out my original estimate of one ton was way under. I actually moved somewhere between 3500 and 5000 lbs of soil yesterday. It amazes me how much the work one human can do gets multiplied by the simple expedients of one wheel and one inclined plane.
And it amazes me that I actually have a garden again. I’m so excited!