Adventure #6: Backyard Shenanigans

*This is Adventure #6 in my Top 10 Adventures (of the past year and a half) Countdown*

Not every adventure takes me far from home. Some of my greatest adventures have come with home ownership. Mike and I have had our place in south Phoenix for 3.5 years now, though it doesn’t seem like that long. We’ve made plenty of small improvements inside the house, but our greatest adventures occur in our backyard.

I’ll be cheating a little in this post (surely you’ve come to expect that by now) since I’ll be discussing the totality of our backyard insanity and not just the things that have happened in the past year and a half. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done A LOT in the past year and a half. Still, you have to know what we started with to really appreciate where we are, especially since we’re far from done. If I just showed you the photos of what we’ve done recently, you might not be as impressed as I want you to be. I want you to bear witness to the blood, sweat, tears, sweat, dirt, concrete, sweat, margaritas, and sweat — LOTS of sweat — that went into getting our yard to its current mediocre state.

I think this post will be most effective if I simply narrate in accompaniment to the photos. Some of the photo sets below are in mini-mosaics, and they have captions if you mouse over them; other photo sets are in slideshow format. Here we go:

March 2010

These are the earliest photos of our yard I can find, and they date to sometime about 2 months after we moved in. We’d already done a little bit of digging for our garden, but otherwise the yard is au natural. That green stuff is not grass. Those are weeds. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but the very back of the yard (the part farthest south) slopes up toward the wall and is a couple of feet higher than the rest of the yard.

October 2010

In the fall, we harvested our first crop (eggplant, tomatoes, and the most pathetic sweet corn ever), rented a tiller, and worked on cleaning up some of the weeds. After we completed those projects, we began digging out the area where we planned to add a new retaining wall.

November 2010

November was a busy month for us. We kicked off the month with a large delivery (6 pallets) from Lowes. The delivery consisted of stucco, concrete, and concrete blocks. We started the month by laying rebar for the foundation of our retaining wall. Once the rebar was in place, we worked on pouring the foundation with help from our friends, Rob and Joe. Later on, Joe helped us build the wall itself with the concrete blocks.

Another big move for us was the installation of solar panels on our roof. This is one of the few projects that was not DIY, though. We have a 14-panel array that provides virtually all of our power in the winter months and takes a huge bite out of our summer electricity bills. We brilliantly installed them at the perfect time, when both the government and our power company were offering incentives. If we bought the same system today, it would cost us at least $6000 more. According to current calculations, we will pay off our investment sooner than planned.

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March 2011

We had another big push in March of 2011. We started by filling the blocks of our retaining wall with concrete. Those suckers aren’t going anywhere! Next, Mike worked on building an irrigation system for our eventual plants. He ran pipes down the side of our house and then behind the entire length of our retaining wall. At some point (maybe March, maybe later) we dug more trenches and added more pipes to water our garden and future trees. March also began our epic task of stuccoing approximately 1000 square feet of brick walls. We eventually put three and a half coats on all of these walls: a base coat, a scratch coat, a finishing coat, and a texture coat (this is the half coat since it doesn’t fully cover the wall).

June 2011

By June, the end of our outdoor work season, Mike had wired the backyard and added a few outlets in strategic locations. We had also finished placing the water pipes and stuccoing the back wall with the finishing and texture coats.

December 2011

After a busy fall, we made a little progress by December 2011. We back-filled the retaining wall, stuccoed the side walls, built a concrete “capstone” for the retaining wall, and stuccoed the retaining wall. The capstone was an interesting project since Mike custom- built the forms we used.

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May 2012

About a year ago we made a few significant changes. We painted our completely stuccoed walls. The back one is purple, and the side walls are a dark brown. Mike also created custom forms and built curvy, concrete-walled terraces in the yard’s southeast corner. We also sanded, stained, and assembled raised beds for our garden. After finally visiting a nursery, we brought home three trees: a Mexican lime, a Mesquite, and a Palo Brea.

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October 2012

In October of last year, I finally managed to convince Mike that it would be awesome to have our own backyard flock of chickens. We went to a couple of feed stores in town and picked out four baby chicks of different breeds: a New Hampshire Red (Brodwin), a Rhode Island Red (Errol), a Black Australorp (Pigwidgeon or “Pig”), and an Americauna (Hedwig). For the first several weeks of their lives, they actually lived in Mike’s office and then the garage.

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December 2012

By December, our chicks were pullets (adolescent chickens) and were ready to move to their outdoor quarters. In the intervening time, we’d finished their coop. In addition to the coop itself, they have a run of about 30 feet by 3 feet. When we’re home, we often let them roam about the yard, too.

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Spring 2013

This spring we’ve continued our backyard adventure. Our chickens are all grown up, and they lay eggs nearly every day. We usually end up with about 2 dozen eggs per week. The girls are good for more than just eggs, though; they provide us with lots of entertainment, fertilizer, and kitchen scrap clean-up. Here’s a video of them eating their favorite treat: tomatoes! They don’t even care if the tomatoes are dirty!

We lost several plants in our hard freeze this winter, so we recently replanted bougainvilleas along our purple wall. We also replaced the lime tree that died last summer.

Our garden is very lush and productive right now. We still have some carrots left over from our winter crop, and our summer crop is coming in strong. We’ve already harvested 3 varieties of tomatoes, a couple varieties of hot peppers, some Mexican gray squash, basil, cilantro, and green onions. Soon we may have corn, cucumbers, butternut squash, bell peppers, and some variety of melon (sometimes unexpected things pop up in unexpected places, and we just let them be).  Mike’s working on establishing a lovely grape vine, and we eat the leaves, but it will be a while before it bears fruit.

We’ve also gone on many Craigslist runs to pick up discarded cactus or loose dirt. We’re using the dirt to level our yard and create a few landscaping mounds. The cacti then get featured in the mounds. On a few occasions, people have dropped off dirt for us. We usually offer them some eggs and show them the backyard. Everyone loves our purple wall. We also got several wonderful potted cacti from our friends Max and Haley a couple of years ago. They’ve been sitting, patiently waiting for permanent homes. Just last weekend, Mike and I moved one of the largest Prickly Pears. Here’s the time-lapse video Mike made to document our efforts:

Our latest project is the construction of a molded concrete walkway and additional patio. We have a mold that is approximately 2 x 2 feet and shaped to make the concrete look like cobblestones. Most days when we pour we use 6 bags of concrete and some dye to form 8-9 molded sections. This takes us approximately 3 hours. So far we have 94 sections complete and an estimated 60 more to go.

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Projects on the horizon include the following:

  • Building a showpiece fire pit with side walls made to resemble the carvings at Chan Chan in Peru (covered in an earlier post)
  • Planting several more cacti and hopefully some fruit trees. Our friend Debrashi has an awesome curry plant, so we’re looking to get one of those and maybe a mango or guava
  • Covering all the unsightly dirt with lovely rocks, as is common in Phoenix
  • Constructing a self-cleaning, self-filling bird bath for our chickens to cool off in (This is all Mike. He has also installed automated drinking water, built a “chickditioner” swamp cooler with a thermostat, and added a camera with a live feed to their coop)
  • Adding a spiral staircase to the roof of our patio where we will place a sunset deck or some such thing

As you can see, even our everyday enterprises are somewhat adventurous. We are always learning new things and gaining new experiences. Though it’s been over three years and our yard still looks like a South American construction site, I get a lot of satisfaction from the work we’ve done. I like building things and getting dirty. Although we have our moments of frustration, I really like  sharing quality time with Mike, working toward a common goal. We joke about how we’ll have to move once we finish working on our yard so we can start the process all over again. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to visit and see the finished product before that happens, though!

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