November 11, 2006
It's November, and as you read this think of the three of us enmeshed in the plots of our Great American Novels. Because that's likely where we are. It is National Novel Writing Month, after all, and being that we are all serious to varying degrees about our writing... well, that doesn't leave a lot of time for more recreational pursuits, such as this newsletter. Which is why we got a jump on it in October. So perhaps it is cold and blustery outside the writing sanctuary as you read this, but we can assure you that as it is being written on Oct. 22, it is a gorgeous autumn day. Not a cloud in the sky and temps hovering around the low 80s. Just the way we want to remember it, for overall it has been a good month.
We're still coming down from our vacation high after taking a few days off early last month (this would be October we're talking about now) to relax along the seashore in Pismo Beach. That trip was tucked into the first half of a two-week break, which left the entire second week for getting up to our elbows in yard work at home. That, as we promised you last month, is the subject of this newsletter.
GARDENING WITH THE GEHLKES, PART I... (Warning, contains scenes that may be too intense for gopher lovers.)
One of the best things about going away on vacation is getting to wake up in the morning and look out your hotel window/tent flap/whatever and see scenery that is not your own yard. All the better if the scenery is sort of attractive, which Pismo Beach definitely is. We'd wake up, push aside the curtains in our room at the Sandcastle Inn, and there would be this awesome tableau of pounding waves and shore birds, drifting fog, kayakers, surfers, and walkers with their dogs out for morning exercise. Contrast this with what we saw when we returned home and opened the curtains looking out on our back yard: 2-foot-high weeds, barren sand, dead or dying plants, gopher mounds. Ugh!
Roni said she'd had enough and decided that we should put the vacation time we had remaining to good use by doing something anything to improve the yard. Glenn suggested a slash and burn of the weeds, but somehow neither of us thought that the fire department would approve. A more practical solution was to follow through on an idea we'd been talking about since the Great Fence Project of 2006, which was to add a fountain to our yard. We weren't going for The Mirage approach, just something simple to add a little art and the soothing sounds of running water in our yard. And to give us something nice to look at through our back door other than weeds while we sit and eat dinner.
Our first step was to choose our fountain, which brought us at last to the garden center at Orchard Supply Hardware on the final afternoon of the store's three-day no-tax sale. We spent over an hour in the store comparing fountains and trying to envision how they would look in our yard. It was during all this window shopping that we kept coming back to a 4-foot-tall statue titled "Summer Season" of a young maiden with an armload of wheat symbolizing a bountiful harvest, and we knew that we had to have her in our yard. What better than to have a protectress of crops in a place where the only thing we seem able to grow well is sticker weeds?
This presented a problem, as we hadn't budgeted for a statue and this one couldn't be used as a fountain. But it was too late; we were hooked on the idea of taking Summer (yes, we'd already named her) home with us and using her as a centerpiece in our design. Now we concentrated on finding the perfect fountain to complement Summer, eventually settling on a two-tier traditional bowl decorated with grape vine patterns. We put a hold on the statue and fountain so we could run home and take some measurements of the project site, vowing that we would return before closing time to purchase our items and take them home.
Satisfied that our yard could accommodate what we were planning to do, we returned to OSH about an hour before closing time to seal the deal. While the yard would have no problem handling Summer and the fountain, we weren't so sure about the ability of our small cars to do the same. These were 100 percent concrete objects we were dealing with, one of them 4 feet tall. Summer, we figured, probably weighed close to 200 pounds. We could only guess at the weight of the fountain, and even though it could be moved in pieces we had no idea if one car could carry it all in a single trip. So we brought both cars and watched apologetically as four store employees wrestled the objects out to the curb.
Our initial estimate of Summer's weight was probably off by more than half, as Roni's back wheels about sank to the ground when the statue was loaded into the rear seat. Four hundred pounds, possibly? More? All that mattered was that she fit comfortably when laid across the seat with the doors closed. The fountain wound up riding with Glenn. Its 3-foot-wide bottom basin went in the trunk, while the bottom pedestal and upper bowl went in the rear passenger seats. Ben got to ride up front with Dad. If we made it home with all this stuff in tact and the rear axles of the cars unbent we'd consider the mission a success. We lumbered our way along city streets and pulled into our driveway without bottoming out. "Think it's all right to leave this stuff in the car overnight?" Roni asked. "Do you really think it's going anywhere?" Glenn replied. It took four people to get Summer into the car; we weren't too sure that only two adults would be able to move it from the car to the back yard in the morning, but we would try.
Our first task on Tuesday was to unload the cars and deliver the statuary to a temporary holding spot on the back patio. The shortest distance was through the house, and we thought that if we worked together quickly with one person at the head and the other at the feet, we might be able to carry Summer to her destination. Wrong. It is probably impossible for a concrete statue to gain weight, but Summer seemed to have done so overnight. It was all we could do to keep from dropping her on the driveway as we slid her through the car door. The last thing we wanted was one of those classic Roman figures with the arms or head broken off. Fortunately Roni has a light duty handtruck she uses in her business, so we were able to load Summer on to it and wheeled her through the living room.
Out of breath, we next tackled the sections of the fountain and found them considerably easier to move. All but the large bottom basin, which because of its weight and awkward shape could not be moved by hand. So we wrestled it onto the handtruck up to the front door, where we had to take it off the truck and tip it sideways because it was too wide to fit through the door. Once it was in the house we put it back on the dolly to get it across the living room, then tipped it on its edge and rolled it through the dining room door out to the patio. Aside from a couple of minor dings we'd managed to get everything unloaded and on the patio in less than two hours. Phew!
The next three days were spent preparing the fountain site. Most folks at this point would have been content with simply plopping their fountain on the edge of the patio and calling it done. But we don't do simple here. Our plan was to create a raised circular planter bed that would both add an extra foot to the fountain's height and create an impenetrable fortress through which no tunneling creatures (i.e. Mr. Gopher Too) could make their way to our landscaping. Glenn dug up all the weeds in a 15x15 square foot section of yard adjacent to the patios and leveled out the sand. This done, we measured out a 7-foot diameter circle that would form the boundaries of the planter bed. Now all we had to do was throw down several feet of double-layered chicken wire, relocate a sprinkler head, dig out a 20-foot trench to lay electrical conduit, construct a three-course modular wall, assemble our fountain pieces, test the pump and voilá!
The one thing that could be said for turning over the weeds and leveling the soil was that it eliminated a ton of gopher tunnels in the process. The little critters have established a vast freeway beneath the surface, scurrying from one end of our yard to the other in search of fresh roots. Not that there are many roots left that they haven't devoured, but they keep trying. The fountain site looked great all smoothed down when Glenn stopped for a lunch break. But when he returned half an hour later, there were fresh mounds of earth piled up where he had been raking, a telltale sign of gopher activity. We couldn't believe the audacity of the little beastie, in broad daylight no less! But no one took Glenn seriously when he muttered his contempt for the gopher and swore what he would do if he ever caught up with him. We'd heard it so many times before that it had become a running joke. What happened next will live long in the annals of Gehlke Family lore.
Still cursing the gopher, Glenn grabbed his shovel and was preparing to resume his weeding when he noticed one of the dirt mounds moving. Every few seconds the mound would move some more, and he knew the gopher was close to the surface carving out his latest tunnel. Let's play Whack-A-Mole! He waited until the next moment the ground began to move, then with lightning speed he thrust the shovel at the mound. Sand flew in all directions and a large chunk of dark soil plopped to the ground a couple of yards away. That'll learn ya to chomp holes in our yard! But upon closer inspection it became clear the large chunk of dark soil wasn't soil at all, but the writhing body of Mr. Gopher Too, who had been dealt a lethal blow.
In a state of shock, Glenn scooped the dying gopher into a bucket while the whole family gathered around to bear witness. "I really didn't mean to kill it," he said. "I was just hoping to scare it." "Maybe it's just stunned," Roni suggested. "He could be playing dead and waiting until we all leave." "I don't think there's any play involved," Glenn said. And sure enough, Mr. Gopher Too had expired. It didn't take Glenn long to get over his amazement and initial guilt and begin to revel in his new reputation of gopher terminator. He declared to the remaining rodent population that the same fate awaited any who dared desecrate the back yard again.
Building the retaining wall for the planter meant more trips to the building supply stores. We found some concrete modular blocks we liked at Lowe's that were the color of the Arizona desert and formed into shapes that could easily be set into a circle. After our experience hauling home the statuary we decided not to overload the cars too much, so for the next couple of days we made multiple trips to purchase the 71 blocks we needed, bringing home a dozen or two dozen at a time.
While this was happening, Glenn also determined that in order to power the fountain pump we would need to run about 25 feet of extension cord from the planter to the nearest receptacle at the house. It would be pretty unsightly if not downright dangerous to leave an ugly orange extension cord strung across the back yard. The solution was to bury it inside PVC pipe. This seemed like a great idea. We measured the size of the plug on the extension cord and determined it could fit comfortably inside a 1-1/2-inch conduit. We'd simply construct our pipeline and then pull the cord from one end to the other with a piece of string. Piece of cake. Errrr. Not exactly. Yes, we could easily thread the cord through straight runs of pipe, but getting it to move through 90-degree turns was another matter. The plug got stuck in the bends and where the seams of the PVC sections came together.
Unfortunately, Glenn had decided to glue the pipe sections together before pulling the cord through, and try as he might there was no way to get the plug past the snags. After several hours of broken strings, frayed nerves, and a number of creative but unsuccessful methods designed to fish the cord out, he finally had to cut apart the pipe sections with a hacksaw, shove the cord through bit by bit, then reassemble the conduit. Lessons learned: 1) Always buy conduit twice the diameter you think you need; 2) Never use PVC glue until you're sure everything fits; 3) Don't do what we did.
Assembling the retaining wall was somewhat easier. We unrolled our chicken wire in 2-foot-wide sections across the 7-foot circle, overlapping it about an inch for each section. When we had done this once, we repeated the process with a second layer of wire placed perpendicularly to the first layer. Not 100 percent gopher proof, but it would have to be a mighty determined gopher to chew through it. We laid the bottom course of 24 blocks atop the edges of the wire, measuring to opposite sides to make sure things were more or less circular. The top course took 23 blocks, while the one in the center took 23-1/2 blocks. Because the retaining blocks didn't come in half sizes, Glenn had to find a way to cut one to fit. He lacked the diamond-tipped blade that is recommended for such jobs, but he did have a 7-inch abrasive disk to use in his power saw. At least it started out as a 7-inch disk. By the time he had ground his way through the stubborn concrete, what was left of the disk measured about 3 inches! At least the block fit.
The rest of Thursday and first part of Friday were spent backfilling the planter ring using sand excavated from the weed pulling and yard leveling project. Ben helped his dad pack the soil firmly and rake out the stray roots. By midday Friday we were anxious to hook up the fountain and watch it do its thing.
Carting the heavy concrete fountain sections up to the planter was almost as much work as getting them through the house. We set up the bottom pedestal, then threaded the electrical cord of the pump through the bottom bowl and down into the pedestal, where we then pulled it through a length of conduit to hook up with the extension cord we'd pulled earlier. Confused yet? It gets better. With the bottom pedestal and lower bowl set up, we then had to place the upper pedestal so that it fit over the pump. The pedestal comes with a little concrete door that tucks over the opening so you don't see the pump inside. But wouldn't you know it, the pump was too large! OSH had sold us a 375 gallon pump suitable for small ponds and large fountains. Our fountain was rated for a 200 gallon pump. So, disassemble all the fountain sections, remove the electrical cord from the conduit, then back to Orchard Supply Hardware.
OSH got us set up with the right pump the second time around, so late Friday afternoon we repeated the fountain base assembly, completing it by attaching the top bowl to the upper pedestal and threading the half-inch vinyl tubing onto the pump outlet. At the very top of the fountain we attached the round finial to a shaft of rigid PVC pipe, made sure everything was level, then waited as Roni filled the fountain with the garden hose. Ben eagerly plugged it in and the fountain burbled to life. Success.
Now it was time to put Summer into her permanent home. Unfortunately she hadn't gone on a diet since Tuesday when we'd wrestled her from the car. We used Roni's handcart again, rolling it up a ramp constructed from a pair of 2x12 planks left over from the fence replacement project, and stood her upright. Once we had her facing the way we liked, we stood back to admire our week's efforts. Our very own garden fountain! Concrete proof, as it were, of our impending transition from youth to middle adulthood. In a few decades, when we fill the planter with geraniums, then we'll know it's time for our AARP cards.
No geraniums for now, however. Roni picked out some thyme and carpet roses that we planted at Summer's feet and around the fountain base. We added some solar lights to accent the planter in the evening. We hooked up a drip irrigation hydrant in place of the pop-up sprinkler head we covered over, and are still figuring out to set it up properly. It's a work in progress. Probably will have to wait for next spring. Ben likes the fountain, but he isn't all that sure what he thinks about Summer, given her chest is partially exposed. We have tried to explain to him the concept of classical art, but he hasn't quite bought into it. He thinks we should give her a shirt to wear. Roni suggested a lei.
GARDENING WITH THE GEHLKES, PART II... (Sorry, but this section contains no violence toward gophers or partial nudity.)
We have occasionally mentioned here our Independence Tree, the fruitless mulberry that went in the ground in our back yard July 4, 1997. Back then it was little more than a twig with a trunk that barely measured 2 inches thick. Today that trunk is about a foot and a half wide, but the tree has recently fallen on hard times. In July 2005 it suddenly went into shock and lost all its leaves. This year it remained bare until mid-May, and we were convinced that it had succumbed to disease. We were relieved when it showed signs of life in late spring, putting out pollen pods and tiny green leaves in the upper branches. But if you know anything about mulberry trees, you know that their leaves are normally huge and abundant. We have been working to give it more water and nitrogen this year and thought we were on the road to saving it.
Then, while cleaning up the yard in preparation for the fountain, we discovered a deep crack in the trunk. So deep and long that it extends from the base of the tree to the lowest branches, nearly 3 feet tall and 2 inches deep. Needless to say, this was not a good thing.
We did some research and learned that our situation is not unique, and that just because the tree is cracking does not mean it can't be saved. Mulberries have soft wood and like to be pruned every year or so something we haven't been good at. If the tree gains too much top weight, the trunk may not be able to support all the limbs and they break off. Pruning should normally be done in the winter, but because we already had limbs that were dead or dying we had to get started early. We sawed off a large limb that was clearly dead, then went about patching up the crack in the trunk. We filled what we could with wood putty, then smoothed on some ointment to protect the bark. Next we wrapped the wound with white cloth that resembles a giant bandage. It isn't pretty, but we hope it will keep the tree alive. From our research on the Internet we found a tale from someone whose mulberry developed a similar split nine years ago and the tree is still alive, so our fingers are crossed.
Both the mulberry and its sister tree, an evergreen ash, have grown so much since they were planted nine years ago that they had both outgrown the decorative concrete rings we'd planted them in. So we took the opportunity of the repairs to the mulberry to also expand the tree rings, "transplanting" the ring from the mulberry to the ash, and purchasing a larger ring for the mulberry. The grass that was originally planted around the trees has long since died as the trees' roots have pushed to the surface on a greedy search for water. Without the lawn, the soil between the trees has become compacted. So we moved some dirt/sand from other areas of the yard to bulk up the tree planters and then tossed some decorative bark in the rings to make it look a bit nicer.
If all our efforts to nurse the mulberry back to health fail, we'll either call in an arborist or cut the tree down. The owner of a local garden center we visited told us that arborists tend to be expensive which we already knew and that it might be cheaper to simply buy a new tree. Perhaps, but there's no way to replace the decade it has taken to produce a tree this size. We'll do our best to be patient, as we've read it can take four or five years for an ailing tree to recover to the point where its leaves will be normal size again.
So now you're all caught up on our gardening endeavors. It's been a heck of a year for yard work, starting with the fence repairs in January, extension of the retaining wall in spring, the partial demolition of the gazebo in July, filling the Dumpster, and now the fall fountain project. Now we can go into hibernation for a few months before tackling the sprinklers and the stone pathway we plan to build.
In the meantime, it's on with our Great American Novels. You can track our progress through November by visiting www.NaNoWriMo.org. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and see you in December.