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Beds, Benches, and Lessons Learned

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

Under our house, we have a pile of lumber, decking, siding, and plywood that was leftover from the build. Nearby is a pile of two-man boulders. My goal is to use these resources to build out the landscaping at virtually no cost.

I tend to learn by doing. I might sketch out a plan for a project, but I’m always drawn to getting started quickly and stumbling through. And there are stumbles that waste both time and resources. But eventually, I learn enough about what doesn’t work to understand what does, and why. It should be noted that, on this approach, Sachi and I differ.

The Fire Pit

One of the features of living on Orcas Island is the availability of tractors. My next-door neighbor and three friends within walking distance all have them. When I tell them about the work we put into building a patio for a fire pit, they all say, “Why didn’t you tell me? We could have knocked that out in an hour!” And it’s true. We sometimes choose to take the manual route because it’s harder. We want to sweat. We want to feel it.

In this case, the manual route meant leveling the grade and moving rocks large and small across the property. It turns out that rocks are heavy and difficult to move with a little cart. But soon, I developed a system and started moving rocks with something approaching efficiency. I have bruises to show for it.

Moving the big rocks turned out to be the easiest part. Leveling the surface was also easy compared to covering it all with aggregate gravel. Bucket by bucket, we built up a 3-4″ base.

Within a couple of days, it was done and our friend, John, offered a fire bowl he didn’t need. It was the perfect fit for the space. So now, we have even more places to build a fire. Thanks, John!

The Potting Bench

In all the time we’ve spent in the garden, we’ve never had a proper place to work. We’d end up sitting on the ground to pot a plant or assemble a tool. I decided to fix this by installing a potting bench along our fence. In looking at designs, I loved the idea of the bench having a screen where potting soil can drop to the ground or into a bucket. This required a sketch.

I had all the lumber I needed, and dove into the project.

To my surprise, it came out even better than I imagined. We now have a potting/workbench in the garden. The surface is the same as our trim material, so once it silvers, it will match.

Hanging Planters

This project was a challenge; honestly, I’m still waiting for it all to fall apart.

In our first summer at Flattop, we thought it would be useful to mount gutters on the fence and grow strawberries. It didn’t work. Because there’s so little volume, it dries out quicker than you can keep it watered in the summer heat.

So, I had another idea: what if I built planter boxes that we could hang on the fence instead?

For this, I’d use panels of our decking, which is thermally-modified ash that is very rigid, but also a bit fragile. Without a fully developed plan, I started cutting pieces and gluing them together. Initially, I didn’t use screws because I was concerned the wood would break apart on the ends.

I built four boxes and let them dry for a few days. Then, I hung them on the fence and used spare wire fencing and weed barrier to create a bed that drains well.

They looked so good on the fence, and I was nervous. The added weight of soil and water would be the real test. Aaaand one didn’t pass. The day after I added soil, the first box I built came apart. Fun!

Clamps to the rescue. And screws. I ended up pre-drilling holes and covering those boxes with screws from every conceivable location. Lesson learned.

As of today, the boxes are full and currently growing basil, mint, dill, shiso, and zinnias. They seem to be holding for now. Time will tell.

Slowly but surely, the property that was wiped clean by construction is coming to life. We still have a lot of open space to work with and years to fill it. Hopefully, I can find ways to use the resources we have to do a lot of that work. I can’t wait.

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Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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