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Can You Dig It?

So, now comes the fun part. UGH. Preparing the flower beds.

Here is the before shot. Honestly, I don’t think it could get much worse…

Maybe if I look at it from another angle, it won’t be so bad…

Nope. Still downright fugly. Well, as Jane Austen once wrote, success supposes endeavor. So, if I don’t want to live in the house that beauty forgot, I’m going to have to break out the gardening tools.

You can see my primary attack weapons in this pic — namely a shovel and an claw-style soil cultivator. Oh, and a rake. I guess I didn’t get the rake in the picture.

Here’s a better look:

(If you can’t get your hands on a cultivator, it’s OK. You can achieve the same effect with just a rake & shovel.)

Beyond this basic trio, I will be employing determination, atrophied shoulder muscles & profanity. That’s really all you need at this stage. Not glamourous, but probably not too costly. I will admit that I bought the tools, but that’s only because I was too lazy to drive over to my in-laws’ house to borrow theirs.

If you’re on a tight budget (and what renter isn’t?!?) you can probably find a way to avoid this expense. I’ve gardened a lot in my days, and this is the first time I’ve invested in buying my own tools — people are usually pretty cool lending out gardening stuff. It’s durable & meant to get dirty, so the sentimental attachment an owner feels toward his/her rake is usually pretty mild. Plus, most homeowners will gladly cooperate with the idea of their renter-neighbors keeping the place tidy.

RENTAL HOUSE RULE #2 — BORROW TOOLS WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Step One: Dig out weeds

I prefer to use the “Say hello to my little friend” technique when battling weeds. In other words, I go all Scarface on them. It’s an excellent way to work out your aggression. Don’t worry — at this point, you cannot go wrong. No jab of the shovel or far-flung clump of grass is a bad thing. Go nuts! (This is where the profanity comes in.)

Tip: Do not underestimate the root system of the garden-variety weed. Those suckers are IN THERE. Use the tip of a spade shovel, or the corner of a flat shovel to just mutilate any roots you encounter. Make them bleed. Yank them out with your hands and wave them around like you’ve just scalped the white devil. WEEDS ARE YOUR ENEMIES. SHOW NO MERCY.

Step 2: Remove unwanted features

The last gardener who rented this property — judging from the deplorable state of our yards, I assume this was several tenants ago — decided to frame the front flower bed with wooden rails. It probably looked nice. Back in the Reagan era. By now, the boards are so rotted & the spikes so unearthed that the once-handsome rails look more like discarded popsicle sticks.

Fortunately, getting them out was a breeze.

Seriously, my 3-year-old could have gotten those sad, sad splinters out of the ground. They’re so corroded and bug-filled, they can’t even be salvaged. To the landfill they go 😦

If you have a similar edging feature, I’d suggest gauging how hard you’ll have to work to remove it before you start. You might need sturdier tools than I did. Or, they might not be worth messing with at all.

Try putting the tip of your shovel in an “anchor spot” and give it a little push & wiggle. Any movement? No? None at all? Then it’s in there pretty good. Best to just work around/artfully obscure it later. If you did get movement, it’s probably a cosmetic “finishing” feature & can be easily removed. Just rip it out. But do be careful — always wear the proper protective clothing & remember that neither your tools nor your body are made of kryptonite.

Step 3: Cultivate the soil

Don’t get lazy. Don’t do it. Don’t say to yourself, ‘Eh… why bother to dispose properly of all of those weed carcasses? I’m just going to be digging & raking anyway, why not just turn them all back into the soil? They’ll fortify the land! I’m being all green and eco! Hey, Ma! I’m composting!!!’

No, no — not composting. WEED planting. Those carcasses still have every potential to re-root and spring right back to life. They are a menace. That’s why there’s a whole figure of speech “growing like a weed” based upon their relentless desire to flourish. If you don’t get all of that weed waste out of your flower bed, you’re absolutely ruining the hard work you did in step 1.

(I know I sound like a gigantic nag, but seriously; if it seems like a pain in the rump to pull weeds now, just imagine how fun it will be to try to do it later without stomping all over the flowers you worked so hard to plant. Now call your mother. And don’t forget to floss.) 

This is what you’re going for. No, those aren’t weeds in the lower left corner, it’s grass that Dan blew on me when he mowed the lawn mid-flower bed dig.

Isn’t he a hottie?

Dan: “Oops, I got some grass in there, baby. Sorry!”

Me: “I’ll forgive ya, ’cause you sex me up!”

10 Cool Points if you can name that reference. 50 Cool Points if you can tell me the origin of Cool Points. 

Getting back on point, how you go about the soil cultivation process is really a matter of choice. Again, there are kind of no wrong answers here. You just kinda want to chunk up the earth, turning what was underneath to the top in order to get a pliable planting area & to work air into the soil.

I myself am a huge fan of claw-style cultivators.

To use one, just stick the forked end into your soil and twist.

Sure, you’ll discover muscles you never knew you had & your hands will sport at least 2 blisters each, but for some reason this step of the planting process just feels good. Maybe it’s the primitive nature of the act. Who knows? But I guarantee that despite the (admittedly difficult) physical labor involved, after digging out a garden bed, you will go to bed feeling really good. Like you’ve done something.

Tip: Don’t be surprised if cultivating a flower bed brings up weird emotions. It’s a normal human response to literally breaking the surface of things that are buried. You’re not weird. It’s why therapists so often recommend gardening. It’s actually good for you 🙂

Anyway, once you’ve had a good cathartic cry (don’t worry, the sweat will mask your tears) you’ll find yourself with… a big hole in the ground & another gigantic mess of yard waste.

I know. Totally anti-climactic.

But don’t get lazy, Weedy McWeedgrower. Pick through the mess, pull out any weed roots you can find & properly dispose of them. You will thank yourself later.

The good news? The hard part is over.

Step 4: Rake it out

Again, I somehow managed to not get a pic of my rake/raking process. Weird. For the record, I used a sturdy metal rake. That’s about as exciting as it got, so I suppose you didn’t miss much, photo-wise.

Here’s what I ended up with:

Those are not weeds, just bits of leftover mulch from the previous gardener, random sticks and bits of grass. See? (below) This is OK. None of that stuff will re-root.

Plus, it would be cuckoo to think you could get every last bit of clover and every tenacious little root. So…

Step 5: Guard against weeds

Weed blocking fabric is essentially a barrier product designed to allow moisture and nutrients to penetrate from above, while preventing weeds from emerging from below. There’s quite a bit of controversy about whether this stuff is necessary, or if it even works.

Purists will suggest using newspaper or paper grocery bags instead. Many folks consider a nice, thick (3-4 inch) layer of mulch protection enough. When I was in AZ, I never even considered using weed fabric. But then, the weeds in AZ are of the large, prehistoric-looking variety. Weeding by hand every few days was simple.

Here in PA we have small, sneaky weeds. They appear out of nowhere — wave after wave of botanical pioneers bent on staking their claim to every square inch of a nice, pristine flower bed. I just don’t have the strength for man-on-man defense here. I just don’t. I gotta play the zone.

Which is why I chose to go ahead and splurge on the fancy-schmancy $15 roll of weed-blocking garden fabric.

Last year, I employed a bizarre combination of pre-emergent weed killer and a thick layer of mulch on a different flower bed. Half green/half eco-terrorist. What can I say? I’m complex.

Just kidding. I used the most earth-friendly weed stuff I could find. I really don’t remember which brand, or how much more it cost than the regular stuff, but I don’t remember cringing at the difference. I just sprinkled it on after I prepared my bed, watered it, then waited a few days to make sure it was really “sunk in”. Then I laid a thick layer of wood chips and called it a day.

(Yes, smarty, I realize I didn’t mention planting any flowers. Because I didn’t. The “flower” bed was primarily dug to house our wrought-iron park bench. I’ll do a post on it soon — it needs some tending, fo sho.)

Anyhoo — here’s a shot of the weed fabric. You can get it at any gardening center.

THERE’S MY RAKE!!! Whew. I knew I must have taken a pic of it at some point. Thought I was losin’ it there for a sec…

For the most part, I chose to use the fabric this time out of curiosity. I want to see firsthand if it works, so I assuaged my guilt by reminding myself that I can dig it up at any time if I discover that its eco-debit outweighs its effectiveness.

So, I rolled it out, making sure to overlap by 4-ish inches where necessary. Then I stuck in anchor staples to hold it in place. Astoundingly easy.

Once it was in, I decided it looked “a little puffy”. This was entirely my own appraisal. I don’t know what the manufacturers would say about what I did next, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Come to think of it, a lot of my dad’s funniest (read: most-property-damage-causing) childhood stories end with that phrase. Huh.

Anyway, I stepped on it. Not a lot, just enough to kind of even out the lumps. And test the staples. Yeah, that’s it. I was testing the staples.

They held real nice. And I know you appreciate my willingness to experiment on your behalf. You’re welcome. I guess I’m just a giver 😉

So… that’s pretty much it for phase two. I told you it would be full of ugly pictures of dirt & my foot. But, since I always like to leave on a high note, I’ll end with a few pics of what I found during my flower bed excavation…

A bunch of old weed blocking fabric, including plastic anchors; the lid of a yellow highlighter pen; part of a shoestring & something in a tied-off plastic shopping bag. (I don’t wanna know.)

Also: several juice box straws & a plastic army guy… or maybe he’s a miner or something.

But the piece de resistance is this bottle of nail polish. It was neatly tucked underneath a brick, like it was hidden on purpose. I like to imagine that it belonged to a rebellious teenage girl who lived here long ago, whose parents disapproved of such wanton things. I truly hope that someday I’ll unearth a bottle of similarly stashed polish remover 🙂

Next post — putting in the flowers!!!

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