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.
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.
I clearly remember watching my father in his tunnel-shaped greenhouse on the hill behind our house in Kernersville, NC. On my frequent visits, I’d wander around in the humidity as I inspected his tools and projects. The air was a musty mix of soil, fertilizer, and him. He had long tables full of plants, mostly flowers, organized into sections with carefully placed labels and tags. A spiral-bound notebook with a dirty cover kept his barely legible notes. Little film canisters, each with their own labels, seemed to be sprinkled about and stored in a tiny refrigerator along with a couple of bottles of Yoo-Hoo.
When he wasn’t inside the greenhouse, he was somewhere on the property digging a hole, moving a plant, starting a sprinkler, pruning, weeding, and more. As a child, I never understood what he was doing in the greenhouse and garden, but I knew it came from a place of passion. At dinner time, I would often have to go find him. Left alone, he would stay in the garden until dark.
Now that we’ve moved and built garden beds, our garden is our next big project and I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming a version of him in his garden. We are putting down literal roots on a landscape that has been stripped of life in the course of construction and building it back feels like a lifelong pursuit. Aside from the vegetables in the garden beds, the garden and landscape around our property won’t develop fully for many years and that’s part of the beauty of this project. We will bring life back to the rocky ground.
In my book, Big Enough, I shared this quote in a chapter on long term planning:
The success or failure of any design comes down to the goals you’re trying to reach and I take inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, who often ignored the need for short-term success and took the long view of landscape architecture.
In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.”
Forty years. That’s how long he thought it would take to see results. The distant effects of our garden will hopefully take fewer years, but I am prepared for the long term. As much as I want to snap my fingers and transform the sword fern by our front door into its full prehistoric splendor, I must water and wait.
In our division of duties, I am the landscaper and Sachi is the vegetable gardener. In Seattle, we had a backyard planter bed where Sachi grew veggies for years. I was always interested in the challenge, which I didn’t fully comprehend going into the process. Gardening seemed like a nice hobby where you put seeds in the ground and a few months later, harvest a cornucopia of big beautiful vegetables. And in some cases, that happened with minimal effort (I’m looking at you, tomatoes!)
What I witnessed then, and now understand, is that tending a garden is more like an arms race or a puzzle than a set-it and forget-it hobby. It took Sachi multiple years to learn how to optimize the garden for maximum sun and what plants worked best in our little corner of Seattle. She was always at war with pests, like slugs, snails, aphids, birds, and squirrels who used the garden like a buffet. Then there was the weather, which can be uncooperative and the all-too-short summer season in the PNW. If it doesn’t get warm enough for long enough, gardens can remain puny. No season is ever the same. And that’s also part of the fun.
The rush in building our raised beds at Flattop was an effort to get seeds in the ground before it’s too late. Now that we have them in, the real learning can begin. I’m sure we’ll have successes and failures, but for the first year or two, the real goal is experimentation. Our garden, like most, has a sweet spot between the spring and fall when the plants don’t need to be protected or covered from chilly winds and low temperatures. Finding that sweet spot is the goal, and it may take years.
Orcas Island has multiple micro-climates and ours, on the west side, is known for being warmer and sunnier. Some say it’s Mediterranean. I’m not so sure, but taking advantage of what sun we have is high on our list. With its pests and wily weather, we have a lot to learn.
Today the beds are approaching full, with squash, french beans, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, and more. It feels like the calm before the vegetable storm, which gathers strength each day.
The vegetable garden is Sachi’s happy place. She spends mornings and evenings tending it and watching it grow. Yesterday she was excited to show me that the Hubbard squash was starting to show fruit. Unlike the landscaping and ornamental plants that I tend, hers are productive. They feed us and that surely adds to Sachi’s attraction.
Flattop has large spaces to fill in terms of landscaping and it sometimes feels daunting. I have plans for filling each space, but the lower priority areas are slowly succumbing to weeds and grasses. We’re hoping to establish ground covers that, over time, prevent other plants from growing. It will take years, but will hopefully provide us a natural, low maintenance, and beautiful way to wrest control of the soil from invaders.
One of my favorite projects is a relatively modest one. The west side of our house slopes down precipitously and the north corner is barren and rocky. Over time it may start to erode and one of my first goals was to plant ground covers that would beautify it and keep the ground in place. So far, like most of my landscaping, it looks puny, but I’m keeping it watered with high hopes. Thankfully, the rocky slope is not a place deer like to tread.
For me, the garden has become a place of refuge. I jump at the chance to take a break from work and inspect the plants. In the evenings, I look forward to the meditative feel of watering. Looking back, I think that was also true for my Dad. His garden was his refuge and place to do what he wanted.
He turned a few acres of family property in North Carolina into an expansive garden that became a stop for bus loads of garden tourists. Those greenhouse projects, notebooks, and film canisters were his tools in creating and naming hybrid varieties of daylilies, hostas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. One of his best-known varieties is a hydrangea named after my mother called Dear Dolores. Like most members of the family, I have a daylily named after me: Forsyth Lee LeFever.
Today he’s 86 and his best gardening days are behind him. But he still reads gardening books and loves to talk about what we’re growing out here on the west coast. Someday, we’ll have a space like his greenhouse for our garden projects and experiments. We’ll grow what we can and hopefully, our garden will be a lifelong source of happiness, exercise, beauty, and food. Who knows what we’ll see in 40 years?
On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.
The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up.
Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up.
Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there.
To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.
The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001.
I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work.
It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.
On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath.
After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.
A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed.
Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.
That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.
Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?
We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect. On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us.
Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins.
In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.
Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.
We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”.
By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower.
I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.
The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.
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.