Spring Has [Finally] Sprung at the Aerie

After a long winter and several “false springs,” spring has arrived with a vengeance.

It was a long, cold winter here in Central Washington State.

(At least that’s what they tell me. I wasn’t around. I went south and suspect I’ll be doing that most winters.)

Snow off roof
This Mavic Pro image, shot one afternoon not long after my return in March, shows the snow that slid off the roof and accumulated in front of my garage doors during the winter. There was an even bigger pile on the south side of the building, which has a bigger roof.

The cold reached deep enough into the ground to freeze the water lines running to the homes at the end of my road. The snow fell in storm after storm piling up and eventually sliding off my roof into big piles on the north and south sides of my home. And in March, which is normally when the weather starts getting good, every night temperatures dipped below freezing, stalling the wakening of the orchards. Even in April there were bouts of cold weather — as recently as last Monday, I woke to the sound of wind machines in the cherry orchard near my home.

Balsamroot at my House
Perennial balsam root, a native plant, started blooming in April and was finished by mid-May.

We had a few warm spells in April that fooled a lot of us into thinking that spring had finally arrived. The local supermarkets and big box stores opened their garden shops and began selling flowers and vegetables for planting. I planted some cold-weather plants — brussels sprouts and broccoli, for example — that survived through subsequent cold spells, as well as some herbs, such as basil, that did not.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry blossoms on one of my two young cherry trees. I might actually get fruit this year!

I worried about the cherry trees, knowing that a serious frost could impact my clients’ orchards and, ultimately, the number of contracts I’d get for my summer work. The cherries bloomed and were sufficiently pollinated, although some clients in Quincy had early fruit drop and decided to skip a season.

Last week, spring seemed to finally take hold. After a few cold nights and chilly, rainy days, the temperature began to rise — by about 10° each day! By Sunday, it was in the 80s and I found it necessary to adjust the irrigation in my garden to provide my vegetables with enough water to grow.

Meanwhile, mother nature had watered the rest of my property. The wild grasses, sagebrush, and wildflowers took off in a wild growth spurt that I didn’t even notice until it was time to mow a path to my Lookout Point bench. The point is in the northwest edge of my property, positioned just before the land drops off into a wildlife corridor owned by the local utility company. Since most of my 10 acres is natural vegetation, I need to mow a path from my driveway to the bench to access it. I have a string mower I use for that but it needed a new axle after I ran it over with my truck. (Note to self: do not park anything in front of the truck’s garage door.) By the time I picked up the mower from the repair shop, the grass was 18 to 24 inches high in some places. I got the mower started and used it to mow my way down to the bench, mow around the bench, and mow a wider path back. I suspect I’ll have to mow it two more times before autumn.

Path to my Bench
The path I mowed down to my bench. I could not believe how tall the grass was along the way.

I began a wildflower class with the local college’s continuing education program. Every Tuesday evening we meet on a trail in the foothills to discuss, dissect, draw, and identify flowers. Most, if not all, of the same flowers grow around my home.

I’ve also started mushroom hunting, although I was apparently too early for the elevations I was hunting at. I suspect I’ll do better later this week.

My garden has taken off — and so have the weeds between the raised beds. Every morning I spend about 30 minutes pulling weeds and feeding them to my chickens.

I’ve caught two bee swarms (so far) and I’m ready to spilt the two healthiest colonies.

And this moment, as I type this, every single window in my home is wide open to let fresh air in. I haven’t heard the heat kick on in over a week and I suspect I won’t hear it again until autumn.

Spring is finally here — and not a moment too soon. Now let’s hope it sticks around for a while. I’m never in a hurry for summer.

De-Winterizing the Lawn

The remnants of winter have been raked away.

I have a very small front lawn. The only reason I have a lawn at all is because my dog likes grass. She likes to roll in the grass and drag her belly across the grass and yes, even poop in the grass.

I created my front lawn in the late summer of 2014, when my building was done but my living space was barely started. I bought some sod on Craig’s List for $20. It turned out to be enough to do half the lawn. I seeded the rest. It grew and, before long, the lawn looked like one nice patch of grass.

I bought a push mower. You know — the kind you push and the wheels spin some blades. It’s a small lawn. I don’t need more. It takes about 15 minutes to do if I do it often enough. I’m thinking of buying an electric mower, but I like the exercise the push mower gives me.

In the spring of 2015, I set up a sprinkler system. In the hottest part of summer, it waters the lawn twice a day for about 10 minutes. The grass grows quickly. At the peak of the season, I have to mow twice a week. Otherwise, the grass gets too long and it’s a real bitch to mow.

Last season, I turned off the sprinklers in the fall and waited for the lawn to go into winter mode. It took a long time, I mowed it once in a while and then, when the first frost came, I put the mower away.

It snowed in November. And it snowed some more in December. A lot more. I went away and while I was gone, it snowed even more. The front lawn was covered with snow throughout December and January. It took its time melting in February. I watched while I was away, looking at it through one of my security cameras. Even when the snow was mostly gone, there were still patches on the lawn.

Frost Burn
My neighbor called this frost burn. I just call it ugly. It happens when a lot of snow sits on the grass for a long time, crushing and killing it. At the top of the photo, you can see where I’d already raked and added soil.

When I got home in mid February, I discovered that they weren’t patches of snow. They were patches of dead, flattened grass. Frost burn, is what my neighbor called it.

I went to California, hoping the grass would somehow miraculously recover while I was gone. But it didn’t. It looked the same when I got back in early March.

Of course, it isn’t as if it was warm here. It’s true that the land around where I live is “greening up,” for spring, but it’s still in the 30s at night. While the grass is just waking up from its winter slumber, I wasn’t convinced that it would shake off this layer of dead grass on its own. So I began raking it.

It was a tough job, especially when the grass was still wet. I was raking up clumps of it. For a while, it looked as if I were raking more than I was leaving behind.

Still, I kept at it, doing a little bit every day. It was a real upper body workout. I had two different rakes I used: my old RV rake (recently used to roast marshmallows while camping) to really dig down deep and a wide plastic leave rake to gather up all that dead grass. I worked on it, off and on, for a week. I just finished it earlier this afternoon.

While I was doing all this, I also removed my half-hearted front walk, which I’d created when I put in the lawn using some very ugly rectangular concrete pavers. I never liked the way it looked and it was a pain to mow over. No one used it except me. Everyone else walked up the paved driveway.

I also finished the “retaining wall” separating the grass from the gravel driveway. I’d started the wall when I put in the lawn, wanting to avoid sloping the grass right down to the driveway. I used local stone — there’s no shortage of it in the talus slopes of basalt rock that sometimes cross the road. I’d go out on my ATV with the trailer attached and load up the biggest pieces I could find, bring them home, and stack them carefully. I’m actually pretty good at it — but that might be because of my Italian blood. (Italians are excellent stoneworkers.) I’d stopped the wall at the walkway, but when the walkway was removed, I figured it was time to finish the wall. So I did.

Turf Builder Grass Seed
I’ve had a lot of good luck with this grass seed.

I then spread about 8 cubic feet of lawn topping on the lawn, concentrating on the low spots that needed to be built up. I bet I could use another 8 cubic feet — but I’ll save that for next year.

I finished up with some Scott Turf Builder Sun/Shade grass seed. I used about half of a seven-pound bag, spreading it with a hand spreader I have. It was important for me to get it done today; there’s rain in the forecast for the next few days and I wanted to let mother nature do the watering, at least for now.

At this point, my lawn is done until it starts growing. I fully expect it to be lush and green in about a month.

Raked Lawn
Here’s a shot from the paved driveway. Yes, I know it looks like crap here — I bet it looks great in a month. You can see where most of the soil went.

I do have a few more things to do:

  • Fine tune and test the sprinkler system I installed last summer. I’d actually like to replace the two impact sprinkler heads with the kind of head that drops down into the ground when it’s not working. That’ll make mowing a lot easier. I figure I have about a month to do that.
  • Finish up the space under the deck. This is a huge project that consists of:
    • Removing the beehive planters. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I think it looks trashy.
    • Leveling the ground under the deck. Although it’s mostly level, there are some bumps that need to go away. I’ll be using a shovel, a rake, and a piece of wood for scraping to get that done.
    • Laying weed preventer cloth on the entire surface. I’m tired of grass growing where I don’t want it.
    • Setting border stones between the lawn and the space under the deck. I want a definite divider between the two areas.
    • Laying down pavers. I chose ones that look like a mosaic of stone. I figure I’ll need about 60 of them to get the job done.
    • Planting shrubs between the walkway and border stones. Not sure yet what I’ll plant. Hoping to buy something native that makes berries.
    • Surrounding shrubs with mulch or bark. I want the weed preventer cloth completely covered.
    • Filling in the area between the walk and building with river rocks. There’s too much shade under the deck against the building to plant anything there.
  • Dress the driveway edge with additional gravel. I’ll be getting a truckload of gravel delivered, possibly as soon as next week. I want half spread on my driveway to fill in some low spots and the rest dumped where I can use it as needed.

Retaining Wall
This angle shows the retaining wall I built to avoid the lawn sloping down into the driveway. It also gives you a good idea of where the additional gravel needs to go.

Owning a home is a lot of work. But it’s worth every minute when the jobs are done and you get to admire the results of your labor. And its nice to know that in this case, a little exercise also saved a bunch of money that I could have spent hiring landscapers to do this for me.

But the biggest challenge is not the work — it’s dreaming up ideas to make the space more attractive and usable. Two years ago, as I got ready for the construction of my home, I knew I’d have to put in a lawn somewhere. Later that year, when the building was in place, I had the earth work done to prep for where the lawn would go. I then added the grass and the retaining wall. While the path I added turned out to be a bad idea, it wasn’t so difficult to remove. Since then, I’ve been building on what I have, making the ideas I’ve come up with become reality — which is basically what my entire home project has been all about.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. But I’m loving every minute of it.

Now where’s that bottle of ibuprofen?