Thursday, 30 May 2013

Video Post #2 - Setting Base Course Blocks

After our video debut, I figured we should put up another great movie. Here it is - how we set the base course blocks in our great wall.

Its 4 minutes of WOW! Ok, its a little technical and talks about compacting gravel a lot, but its an important part of wall building.

This particular block went in pretty easily. I didn't even need to use the sand I mention early on in the video. The sand works great for levelling an ornery block that won't sit straight. Before getting to this step we had set up a base of about 4" of compacted gravel. The shovelful of material I toss in in the video is just to level things off and bring the foundation up to grade for the adjacent block.

Enough talk here's the movie:

For our next one, I'll aim for cats doing silly things - people seem to like those movies a lot!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Forward thinking - Planters and Herb Gardens

With the current backyard makeover in full swing, we don't have much space for actual growing of stuff right now. That leads me to the need for some hanging planters or herb gardens, or something like that.

In order for our stuff to survive in our current backyard state, I need to think about hanging planters or window planters. Something like that. So I went hunting and found some great ideas in the blog-o-sphere (haven't heard that word used in a while!).

Idea 1 - From "Pretty Handy Girl" is a planter that is actually intended for an interior application, but would look perfectly fine on our patio which is currently home to a billion retaining wall blocks. The nice thing about this idea is that it could be moved easily due to its size, which is very appealing since everything in our yard is in flux right now.
 Her tutorial is first rate, and this looks like a very do-able project in an evening or two. I really love her metal leaf tags - I'll have to wait for the tutorial on building the tags, but I think I already have it figured out. Those tags would be great on our Espalier!

Idea 2 is less labour intensive, but equally fantastic. Rain gutter planters.

The trick with these is to not have them come out looking like rain gutters. On her blog, The Biggest Much, Jaclyn builds a great cascade of herb gardens. I can see these loaded with strawberries, herbs, just about anything that wants to send out runners. Since we have a defunct gazebo on our back porch, these would make fantastic curtain walls, and allow us some garden space without taking up any real space. I might be tempted to paint the gutters a copper tone or similar though. I see this project as do-able in an afternoon or less with store-bought plants. I wonder if there would be a way to dome the planters for frost protection in the spring/fall and extend our outdoor growing season. I am a big fan of this idea.

I can see this in my future!

Another blog had a similar setup, but nailed to a fence. I think that's a great idea as well.

Finally, I saw some "washtub" veggie gardens while browsing ideas, and I really think they could be good for us this summer, but I don't know what I would do with the used washtubs later on. Then there are the black earthboxes, and so many other ideas. I hope we get something started soon though since our growing season is well underway!  

Rain is in the forecast for the next couple days. Maybe I can get started tonight!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Should She Stay, or Should She Go?

When we got Bernie as a puppy, we though we were getting a lazy, docile breed of dog that would be a good friend to our boys, and have a calming effect on the family. Back then we lived on a small acreage in rural York region with chickens clucking around the yard, and coyotes eyeing them from the distance. The odd car or truck that went by usually waved, and the neighbours were as likely to pull up on a riding mower as a backhoe.

Then we moved to the city.

We live in a sleepy part of town, with large lots and nice homes, but Bernie still thinks a city lot is tiny.She thinks that people walking through the neighbourhood are invading her space, and she really doesn't think much of being lead around on a leash all the time. She seems like a country dog stuck in the city. Ever since we arrived here she has been tense, or intense, and is rarely the lazy but watchful dog that Bernese are known for being.

Our neighbours have complained that she barks incessantly when we are out. She chewed up the espalier back in the winter. She is nervous around *some* of our guests and has to be muzzled when someone new comes over. She was snapping at our au pairs, and has lunged at other dogs. Heaven help us if there is an unexpected knock at the door. Then she is like a wound spring letting loose.

So we have been toying with the idea of rehoming her to someone who can work off some of her nervous energy, or maybe someone in the country. Yesterday I got an email from just such a person.

Now its decision time. Despite all her quirks, its hard to reply to the email. She can be quite calm, and likes to sit beside me with her head on my lap when we watch TV. She likes to play and wrestle. She does protect the kids, and keeps an eye on them, and allows them to crawl, and step on, and sit on her.

This is tougher than I thought.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Digging Down, Building Up

SO by now you should have a feel for the scope of our retaining wall project.

After days of digging, we finally reached the shed, and it was time to start doing something new...

After all that digging, everyone was about worn out!

With the sod and topsoil removed from the site, we needed to address the pool plumbing issues. If we leave the pool pipes in their current location, they will be buried in a sandbox, and a pain to get at for future servicing. Besides, they're in the way for our retaining wall work!

Getting at the pipes meant breaking up the Concrete pool stairs and a part of the pool deck.

The stairs really didn't want to move, and it was a lot of work to get them out. The pool deck at this spot has been overlaid with a few lifts of concrete to try and level it in the past. I think this is the most invasive surgery its seen though.

With the stairs removed, we lifted the pipes from their spot in the future sandbox. The pile of concrete rubble was a pain in the but to work around, but we managed.

Here you can see the structure of the pool. The plastic coping is exposed with the concrete removed, and the Tee fitting that sends water from the pump to the pool jets is sticking out of the sand. We will be recycling the sand from this area and moving it to other parts of the yard as we go.

With the pipes removed, we levelled out the sandbox, and finished running conduit for future electric work. 

Electric all roughed in, and its time to start laying blocks.

The base course of the keystone blocks for the wall went in really slowly. As I went I got better and faster at it, but working on this was very tedious and time consuming. At first it was taking me about 10 - 15 minutes per block. By the time we were done the base course, I could lay a block in 3-5 minutes. Sometimes less.

Lotsa bricks in, and the Big-O drainage pipe in place. I don't think we needed the one with the filter on it, but it only cost us an extra $10, so what the heck.

One of our challenges with the electric was that where the conduit crosses the wall, I needed to cut a chase in the block. I used a concrete blade in a skil saw to cut a few grooves, then chiseled out the material. When I test fit it, the groove was too shallow and the box didn't fit in the groove.

To make everything fit, I went back and chiseled out a recess for the box to sit in. No one will ever see this, but I'm kindof proud of how nicely it worked out.

With the electric roughed in, I turned my attention to the plumbing. The pool lines need to go under the wall, and will eventually be run back into the pool shed. I used pieces of the Big-O pipe to make a 'subway' that allows the pool plumbing to go under the wall. The chases mean that if we ever have to replace the pipes, we won't have to take down the wall to do it. We have painted the top of the subway blocks with white paint in case we need to find the spot again someday.

The trickiest part of all this was getting that base layer flat and even all the way across. I'll post a video shortly that shows how we did that once we got a good technique down.

New skillz - Cutting Retaining wall bricks

When we started onto this retaining wall project, we had an idea of what needed to happen, and of some of the steps to get there, but no idea on how to actually do masonry.

Its been a quick learn on how to set blocks and shape them for the project.

So I tried making our first ever video to outline how to cut retaining wall blocks - or at least how to get the little foot things off the bottom of them so they sit flat in the base course. Its actually pretty easy to do - just takes a chisel and mallet.


Maybe I'll update on progress soon, things are really starting to come together now, I've just been too busy to put up blogposts, and at the end of the day I'm too tired to lift anything heavier than a cold drink. Oh, and the tablet doesn't take good pictures after dark!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Espalier continues to grow...

So I have been mostly quiet about the espalier since we started on this retaining wall/pool reno project, but I thought I would make mention of it.

A few folks have asked about how an espalier can grow fruit when you keep cutting its branches off, others are wondering how a tree can grow despite the stresses of constantly cutting it back, and a few think its downright unnattural to grow a treet to a shape like a belgian fence.

How an Espaliered apple tree bears fruit, despite being cut back so much...

Many fruit trees (most, actually) are referred to as "tip-bearing". These trees grow their fruit out on the ends of branches, where the sun will ripen the fruit and it will far as far from the trunk as possible in the hopes of the fruit spreading and growing new trees. If you grow a tip bearing fruit tree, the will do well in most applications, but not in an espalier. In an espalier you would constantly be cutting off the tips of branches that bear the fruit, and so, you would never harvest an apple (or pear, or whatever).

By some quirk of genetics, some varieties of trees are not tip bearing. For whatever reason, nature developed these trees to develop fruit buds along the branches at random spots. These trees are referred to as "spur bearing." A spur bearing tree will do very well in an espalier since you won't be cutting off the flower buds, and since the exposed nature of the tree will allow the fruit to see sunlight. In fact, a spur bearing tree grown in an espalier is supposed to be more productive than a spur bearing tree grown in its natural form, due to the ability of sunlight to reach all of the tree. Crazy, eh!

Why an Espalier survives despite constant pruning...

If you cut back a plant every time it grows, you would expect it to up and die, yet an espalier needs to be pruned a lot in order to maintain its form. How does that work? Well, first of all, an espalier should be grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. This is important because it limits the rate and vigour of new growth on the tree. Since th erate of new growth is slower, it means the tree can reserve energy despite being trimmed every few months. Secondly, the espalier can be trimmed pretty regularly without cutting off every new branch. The process should involve a balance of maintaining the tree's health, and keeping its form. The numbers I have seen have suggested pruning every 6 weeks or so, and a bit of a cleanup in early spring to keep things on track. Being that this is our first growing season with the trees, I am not an authority on this.

So far this spring we have about 6" of new growth on the trees that survived the winter. We seem to have lost all the Russetts we planted - including 2 new ones we just got this spring.

But its SO unnatural to weave a tree into a fence!!

I agree, it is kinda freaky looking until you get used to the idea of an espalier. Our back fence garden is currently full of our rescues from the retaining wall garden though, and as those fill in around th ebases of the trees, I can see the shape of this garden taking form, and you know what, it doesn't look any more unnatural than a boxwood hedge, or a trimmed yew, or any other topiary.

I look forward to seeing the apple blossoms in a few years, alongside some tulips and early Iris, and whatever else I can get to bloom in the spring!

The next espalier update shows some growing quirks and a mystery plant! Here's the link!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Somebunny Came to our House (Easter recap)

This year with two little guys & one big girl, when the bunny came, he brought baskets for everyone, but the littles did the hunting, then shared with their sister.

In just about every photo of the little guys they are a blur…. No time for pictures Mom, there's treats to be found!

Cuppa, after leaving his room, finds 'evidence' in the hallway.

Buddy brings his basket up from the living room to show us that "The Bunny JUMPED up into my closet and got my basket and put it downstairs!"

The crazy rabbit made a phone call!

Apparently, chocolate bunnies in the hands of little boys make great action figures

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Random Blog-Nod

I stumbled across this blog ( and thought it was a pretty cool little shop. I have no connections to Nathalie, and have never seen her pottery in person, but I love the soap dishes she has, and I think her earrings would be great for Momma and Chuck.

Maybe I'll get one of her soapdishes for my 'Dad Soap' for father's day. Here's a link so you can see what I'm talking about... sure it wouldn't be as cool as tix to Les Miserables, but at least my soap wouldn't melt away on the countertop...

Friday, 17 May 2013

I dig my family

The family that digs together stays hole.

We are firmly entrenched in our labours of love

We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in our mine the whole day through
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we really like to do

Worm relocation program in progress.

Half a hole. I'll add another half tonight (I hope!)

So we are almost at a point where things are ready for pool pipe relocation and to start backfilling the trench. You can see my measuring marks on the stake leaning against the fence. Going by those marks, we need to level out the trench since there is about 3" difference between high and low spots in the trench (I haven't checked the 'hole.' Tonight I should have an extra helper, so I can get the bottom of the trench levelled out, and finish digging the hole.

A new trench will have to be laid for the pool pipes, but for now they will be run overground to their new home. I need to measure for new pipes before laying them in.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

One tool added on to the one tool...

Newest addition to the shop is a vintage Busy Bee drill press. Dad snagged it off Kitchener's Kijiji for me.

Somebunny Came to our House (Easter recap)

This year with two little guys & one big girl, when the bunny came, he brought baskets for everyone, but the littles did the hunting, then shared with their sister.

In just about every photo of the little guys they are a blur…. No time for pictures Mom, there's treats to be found!

Cuppa, after leaving his room, finds 'evidence' in the hallway.

Buddy brings his basket up from the living room to show us that "The Bunny JUMPED up into my closet and got my basket and put it downstairs!"

The crazy rabbit made a phone call!

Apparently, chocolate bunnies in the hands of little boys make great action figures

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Pool Gods Hate Me.

Last night I was feeling pretty good about my trenching and being thankful I was never at Dieppe or Vimy or anyplace in a world war. In fact I was happy that my little one foot deep trench was progressing across the yard at the rate it was when I found myself at the pool return line. It was made of thick white plastic, and as soon as I found it I switched from digging with my spade to digging with a trowel, carefully exposing the pipe.

Once the return line was daylighted, I continued with my trench, and a few feet later, I came across the 2 lines running to the jets. Where the return line was of a heavy, white plastic, these lines were black plastic, bundled together. As soon as the soil was lifted from them, the pipes began to weep water and a trickle from them formed a small puddle in the trench.

Ugh. Looks like the lines should be replaced. Its good that I discovered the condition of the lines now, before all the work on the deck and retaining wall are in place, but this will mean extra work with the excavation of the lines, and placement of new ones. On the other hand, with the replacement of the lines, the pool should be in good shape to operate trouble-free for the foreseeable future. Or something.

A surprise with the pool returns was that they were all laid on the clay and backfilled with regular fill. On municipal projects we would backfill a hose with a forgiving material like rock dust or sand. Something without any rocks, and without anything sharp or abrasive in the material. At this point my plan is to expose the pool lines all the way back to the shed, replace with new, and backfill with sand.

This will likely add about $200 to the project, but hopefully will allow us to rest easy about the lines. Also for future yardwork, the sand will act as a warning that we are near the pool lines and prevent us from cutting into them with random backyard digging.

 This will add another 25 feet of trenching to the project. I'm getting pretty good at this stuff.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


We have some pretty patient neighbours. Our truck is really loud, and our dog barks a lot, and our boat was parked in the driveway for months on end, but yesterday we stretched the limits of their patience I'm sure.

Yesterday the first of our supplies for the backyard makeover arrived.

What arrived was 4 skids of interlocking stone on a 40 foot flatbed trailer. For the records, that's about 240 retaining wall stones and another 70 "barnboard" paving stones from Armtec/Brooklin Brick. This first shipment will be used to get the layout right and to prepare for the rest of the brick to be used in the yard. Likely we will be getting a second shipment, equal in size soon.


For those who need to know, Barnboard pavers...  and Designwall Lite retaining wall stone.

In any case, it took us about 2 hours to hand-bomb all those bricks from the truck to the backyard. SWMBO offloaded the bricks from the skids and the driver and I loaded them onto a handcart and the kids' wagon to pull them to the back yard where we restacked them.

I think my arms are about 2" longer than they were before we started. On Thursday, another truck will be arriving with a load of A-Gravel for the foundation for this little project. Once it gets going, I'll fill in more details. I bought a new shovel. It will be an old shovel by the end of this.

I hope the neighbours don't mind a pile of gravel in the driveway for a while.

As if that weren't enough, on the weekend we visited Paddy's Market and got a new freezer for the basement. We also got a new beer fridge since the old one was fermenting our orange juice faster than we could mix screwdrivers. Nothing like a little extra zip in your sip. Maybe now we can get back to ordering our meats from local farmers instead of Costco. Homegrown beef is so tasty!

Its being a busy, and a spendy spring around the house.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Buddy's Fifth Birthday

My goodness, where did the time go… the boy is FIVE?!?!

For Buddy's birthday this year we did a "nautical" themed party.

Complete with "pin the anchor on the ship"

and 'nautical' food

Pinata… it was a hit

Cupcakes with life preservers (he was disappointed… he wanted an Elmo cake like his brother had)

For loot bags, we bought sand pails at the dollar store and filled them with treats

Including shovels with 'sand'

And balloons.. the kids loved to play with the balloons.