the plant nobody cared about

A few weeks ago, my mom came to visit. At the time, I was struggling with the planters on my front steps - 10 hours of direct sunlight up against a brick/cement wall spells sad, dead flowers. Upon arrival, my mom presented me with a fairly ugly sedum plant. This is what sedum typically looks like:

Photo: National Gardening Association
But the sedum that was now in my house was not a typical sedum. It was leggy and sad looking with very few flowers. My mother claimed that sedum is wildly hearty, drought-tolerant, and has good color, so it would be perfect for out front. However, she added, she also picked this beauty up from the Oregon Dairy for some unreasonably small amount of money. Perhaps that explains its visual unfortunateness. I was told I could do with it what I wished.

Later that afternoon, Mom and I went to Greensgrow to pick up some prettier succulents for my front stoop.

Since the visit three weeks ago, the sedum has sat inside my front door, neglected by everyone, including the cats. This morning, I had a bright idea: plant the sedum in the back yard. The benefits of doing so are many, but include:
  • If the sedum withers and dies after being planted, I can get a rough gauge on the toxicity of my soil. Or at the very least, the soil's viability (both issues have concerned me since I started working the yard).
  • In digging a hole for the sedum, I can figure out how deep the soil goes, and how far down the trash has contaminated the soil. Answers: deeper than the hole I dug for both criteria. Gross. And no sign of life for at least 12 inches. That might be bad news.
I planted the sedum where the raised beds will eventually go. If everyone's faith in the plant's heartiness is valid, it can survive another transplant when I finally have the beds installed.

And without further ado, the first, but ugliest addition to our new back yard:

Cute in a way only a mother could love.
PS: Hi, Mom!


ivy poison

Here is a photograph-heavy post about ivy.

When I put an offer on my house, it came with a lovely crumbling brick wall in the lovely back yard. The wall separates my property from that of the house next door, which happens to be vacant. In the selling contract, we asked the sellers of my home to fix the brick wall. When they couldn't do that, their solution was to put up a white aluminum fence on my side of the property, keeping the bricks from continuing to disintegrate into my yard. Well, ok. Not optimal or pretty, but it'll do.

Since I moved in, the pretty, non-threatening ivy that lined the top of the crumbling wall (and most of my next door neighbor's back yard) has turned into a monster. It crept along the wall, covering everything in sight, including my other neighbor's house directly behind my own.

Photo taken June 27th, 2011
Same house, photo taken August 16th, 2011

When it started creeping up my house walls, it was on. I Round-Upped that shiz like nobody's business. Now, Round-Up is created by/owned by Monsanto. If you know me or my foodie housemate, or you read Michael Pollan, or know anything about modern industrialized agriculture, you probably don't need to tell you why Monsanto is highly controversial. But if you need a 37-minute refresher, try here. Or, here for Pollan's long, but informative read from the NYT. Or something a little more sensationalized here. (Grumble grumble, fist shake!)

I would like to say that I took more time to think about friendly ways to kill the ivy. After all, I agonized over my decision to carpet bomb my aphids last year. This year, though, I'm a homeowner. A homeowner with certifiably "permeable" stucco on the back of my house. There would be no messing around. My ethical and personal problems with Monsanto will have to wait for another time.

Let's take a look.

Here is where the brick wall touches my house, the gray stucco. Note the sharp contrast between the dead ivy remains on the left and the living portion on the right. The area that I agent-oranged has been continuously clear for almost two months without retreatment. That's both awesome and deeply disturbing.

Now let's zoom in to see what is really going on:

 See those little nubs that look like (dead) holly berries? Those are actually (dead) ivy legs - apparently the technical term is holdfasts. Those little buggers will bore into anything they can, including solid brick, stone, and especially stucco.

Ivy is prolific, fast-growing, destructive, and nearly impossible to kill. When we started tearing up the back yard, I encountered an ivy root that was the diameter of a half-dollar. Silly me for thinking that a nice slice-through with the reciprocating saw might kill the whole beast. Instead, within a week or two, each end of the cut had essentially scabbed over and then sent out 6-8 small runners in its place.

I have watched the ivy consume my neighbor's back wall all summer. A part of me likes the look of it - lush evergreen is much prettier than a beige stucco wall. But the longer this goes on, the more I realize how much it sucks for the owner - whom I have never met - and the fact that I will have to continue dealing with the plant's tendrils as it tries to take over my yard from multiple angles. It would take many many gallons of Round-Up to contain the whole system - most of which is not on my property. Furthermore, without knowing where the roots are to dig up, it will continue to grow back year after year. The best I can do right now is maintain a perimeter just beyond my own walls and garden, and try to appreciate a little more green in my life.

P.S. Ivy is also pretty rough on ecosystems outside of the city. But have you driven around the South anywhere recently? Because ivy is not nearly as big of a problem as kudzu. And yes, the video on that page is probably worth watching.


best-laid plans

The post-junk-removal planning period has required a lot of thinking and not a lot of doing. Nevertheless, there has been some progress: we have chosen a loose design, worked out some construction issues, and decided on a plan of action. Last weekend, we went to the Home Depot to check out decking materials - more on that later.

Tonight, I donned an old hat and toyed around in Photoshop. You see, I was an architecture student once upon a time. Those three semesters were pretty hellish, but I emerged with a working knowledge of the Adobe Suite and a couple rendering programs. What I threw together in the last 30 minutes is a testament to how much concern for detail I have lost in the past six years - and the fact that I had a very important beer softball event to attend earlier tonight. In fact, it is one of the silliest planning diagrams I have ever put together. Scale? Psh. Perspective? Optional. And you know what? I don't care. My days of torturous image manipulation are over.* These days, I aim for interpretative. Oh, but magnetic lasso? Still gives me major eyelid twitch.

So, here is what my backyard looked like yesterday afternoon.

You think it looks messy now, but consider yourself lucky that I didn't think to take a photograph from this angle before the junk men came. Somehow, we are still using the grill(s) and my housemate and some friends even managed to dine out there a few nights ago. At least I know the space will be used when all this is said and done.

And, here is what the plan is (click to enlarge - my layout won't allow anything bigger):

The green will be 12" raised beds, built with (hopefully cedar) 2"x4"s and topped with something wide enough to serve as a bench for entertaining and/or weeding. The brown will be decking, elevated 6-8" above the level of the existing dirt.

Originally, I had wanted to install raised beds in a U-shape covering three sides of the yard space. However, the yard is just under 14'x14', and I think that might be too much usable space gone. Dropping the beds from the left side of the photo will improve the movement flow, give us a little extra space, and allow for better flexibility in terms of where everything goes. At the moment, we will have a big grill, a big-ass rain barrel, a cafe table or two, chairs, and a number of potted plants to deal with.

As the construction gets going, I am sure there will be adjustments to this setup. Much of what we construct over the next few weeks will be determined by how usable the existing structural grid proves to be.

Anyway, coming up in the next post: ivy! Wha-at is it good for? Absolutely nothing!


*At least until the next time I decide to write an image-based research paper and try to format it in Microsoft Word. Shoot me.


a few thoughts on junk removal

I learned some things about junk removal over the past few days. A cursory internet search was less than helpful*, so here is my rundown. Should you ever need to remove junk that the fine people of Craigslist don't even want, read on (if you don't, this may be a pretty dry post):


of junk and hauling

At long last, some progress!

I can't believe it has taken four months to rip everything up in the back yard. Admittedly, I haven't been working on it every weekend. More like an hour or two here and there. A nasty summer cold, the heat, and general laziness have also slowed down the process.

A few weeks ago, I came to the realization that I was spending the majority of my time moving trash, planters, and deck furniture around to be able to access whatever it was I needed to work on, rather than doing the actual construction work itself. It was time to haul some junk.

Disposal of said junk, however, is more complicated than it would seem. After sorting through the plastic bags, junk food wrappers, bottles, cans, the occasional piece of flatware, and glass, and sending it on its way in the normal trash and recycling, I was left with a lot of construction debris: chunks of plywood, broken-up bricks, and a host of random metal scraps, mortar, and rocks that we found under the original deck.

Like many cities, Philadelphia does not allow residents to throw away construction debris in regular trash pickup. For good reason, too. Construction materials are bulky, heavy, and sometimes more dangerous than normal household trash. And I can only imagine what trash day would look like in this city if we were all allowed to toss our rebar, drywall, and mortar chunks onto the street.

My options for dealing with the rest of the junk were as follows:
  • Build over the trash. I mean, that's what the last guys did (ugh). Cost: free, a guilty conscience, and some pretty questionable stuff in the soil below my raised beds.
  • Take the debris to the dump myself. Cost: $80-$100 for up to one ton of debris drop-off, $50 pickup truck rental for a half day, manpower + sweat.
  • Pay someone to take the trash. Cost: $350, peace of mind that the junk gets taken to the proper facilities (and not tossed in the Schuylkill), a few glasses of water/lemonade/tea for the crew.
After a couple of weeks of dragging my feet, Option 3 was looking better and better. $350 is a lot of money, especially given my budget of about $2000 for this whole project. But I've only given myself until Labor Day to finish the project, and that deadline is rapidly approaching. Today I bit the bullet and hired Junk-Be-Gone (full review to follow).

It was a very good decision.

It took less than an hour for two guys to clear everything out, and they did a great job. I didn't have to lift a finger in the 90+ degree heat, either. And, of course, the best part: the yard is finally clean enough that I can move on to the building phase.

Stay tuned for posts about raised flower beds, decking materials, rain collection barrels, and much more!



The backyard project got sidelined while I finish out the semester. In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph of delicious-looking sun-brewed iced tea.
Love, Sarah


Starting Fresh

Well, friends, it seems as though I failed at keeping this blog going last summer. Typically, I neglect/abandon a blog for a whole host of reasons, but this time I have a good excuse. You see, at some point last summer I decided to buy a house. After a grueling real estate process, by August I ended up with some pretty sweet digs on Federal Street in South Philadelphia. Amid the chaos of moving, I lost sight of the gardening project and this blog. Sure, (most of) the containers made it to the new house, but the end-of-summer harvest never really happened.

The new house is a great find. It's a big, rehabbed row home on a great block of a so-so neighborhood. We purchased it from a developer who gutted the place and started from scratch. The end result is gorgeous, although the longer we live here, the more we notice how many corners were cut in the renovation process. The most glaringly half-assed job? The back yard.

Here you see a deck in typical post-winter mess mode. At this point, you may be wondering, "what is that surface?" Well, it's three inches of weather-treated plywood. I kid you not. It isn't level, it isn't permeable, and it sure is ugly. See the standing water there? That's Lake Federal, breeder of mosquitoes, collector of scum, and general bane of my existence.

Moving into the house, I knew the back yard had huge potential. It's about 14' x 14' and it gets decent light. What I could not have predicted was how much water would collect, and how unpleasant it would be to use the space. Never mind the fly infestation and the neighborhood cats who used the planters as litter boxes. Something had to be done, but the project got shelved until the springtime.

Until today, I had no idea what was underneath the plywood. Dead bodies, trash, pirate's booty?Sometime last fall, in a fit of frustration, I drilled some holes to help with the drainage. They plugged up with sawdust.  All I knew was that it was a pretty thick layer of wood.

Roommate Nate, a fellow gardener whom you will meet soon, and I have been brainstorming off and on all winter about plans, but the unknown under-layer kept us from thinking too much about it. Ideally, we would like some combination of raised beds and containers, with enough surface to accommodate two gas grills and some seating. It would also be great if we could disguise the wall surfaces surrounding the area (dirty stucco, white aluminum fencing, random vertical plywood and a cinderblock wall).

So I asked for power tools for Christmas. My specific needs included a reciprocating saw, which is the scariest, most awesome power tool I've ever used. Anything that takes a variety of blades called "demolition" is pretty rad, I think. So I demolitioned.

Safety first!
With Hank hanging out in the event I needed a trip to the emergency room, I picked a random spot and started to saw. Turns out there is a 4x4 bracing system under the plywood, and I picked the exact wrong spot to start sawing. I didn't take any pictures, but the Sawsall got three-quarters of the way through the beam, explaining why it took so much work to cut that first chunk out.

Surprise of all surprises, the plywood surface was covering up a lot of trash. Plastic bags, broken up brick, water bottles, glass chunks, centipedes, ceramics (do I look like an archeologist?). I might have to start a collection of the weird odds and ends I find, but that's a project for another time.

The work is slow-going. The saw is powerful, but it still takes a good amount of strength and patience to cut through this stuff. I spent another hour or so tearing up some big pieces, and then called it a day. Tomorrow will likely bring the first sore back out of many, many to come. But, as Hank put it, whenever I'm frustrated with grad school, I can always go out back and tear some crap up.

End of Day 1
I'm the best at making mess.
Today I only managed a 6-foot hole. However, the best news is this: there's dirt! Lots of dirt! Maybe 10" or so of dirt! This bodes very well for raised beds, assuming the dirt extends from wall to wall. Dirt also means that drainage may not be as big of a problem. Fingers crossed on that one.


So, my dear readers. This blog is about to take a change of direction. In the interest of keeping this project down to a timeline of only one season, I am forfeiting actual gardening for this year. However, hopefully the end result yields a really beautiful, productive garden for years to come. And no more Lake Federal.

In the mean time, check in for updates on the process. Once the actual demolition is done, I am looking forward to getting back to my undergrad roots and using an excessive number of illustrations, plans, and elevations to do this thing right. Good gardening comes from good design.

Welcome to the next chapter of The City Garden.