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.