I used to have a pool, but now I have zucchini


It took a long time for the neighborhood children to forgive me for this, but after our second summer in this home, we tore down the pool. I’d like to say it was a difficult decision, but I was gunning for that pool from day one. The fact that I purchased a home with a pool is a testament to my husband’s powers of persuasion and his sheer love for this little patch of land. Since we are now hitting the 3-year anniversary of this decision, I will share the story of our back yard’s transformation from a pool to a garden.

There were plenty of reasons. The most important dealt with time and money. The only thing more shocking than the cost of pool ownership (chemicals, electricity, water bills, repairs) is the ridiculous amount of time it takes to maintain one. Having grown up with a pool, I was aware of these costs, but they had always been dutifully absorbed by my father. This new one was a much smaller pool, not really conducive to exercise, and I’m not much of a sunbather (for which my neighbors are endlessly grateful). By the time our first child was born, nobody was using the pool much. We estimated the per-use/per-person cost that year to be about $43. And that didn’t include labor. I’m also fairly sure that I did not use the pool a single time that summer. Another big drawback was that the pool was unattractive, and it took up most of the back yard. The final straw, however, was my growing hippie consciousness. I went on and on for hours about how awful it was that my neighbors wasted water on their lawns and sprayed tons of harmful chemicals on their grass and flower gardens. Eventually, the irony of adding gallons of water and loads of chemicals to my pool each week got to be too much, and we won’t even discuss the environmental impact of draining the pool each year. It was time for that pool to go. I broke the news to the neighbor children gently, while I gave the demolition go-ahead to some friends of the family who wanted a pool.

Here are the before and after pictures for the pool’s removal:

Back yard with a pool

Back yard with a pool

After demolition

After demolition – I couldn’t believe how big our yard was

After much debate, we decided to replace the pool with a vegetable garden. I wanted to build fancy planters using the nice smooth base left by the pool, then just tilling in between the walls of the planters to create the soil beds. Silly, naïve hippie . . . Yes, there was a layer of sand that could just be tilled into the soil. Unfortunately, underneath that sand was a layer of pea gravel. So, we had to dig up the sand and the gravel, then start from there. I wanted to salvage the sand, so we made huge piles of sand and gravel on the patio for future use. For the record, reclaiming some of the sand was not at all worth the time it took to sift through the materials. Some very generous friends came over to help us till the soil (Rent the big tiller. Trust me), and then we started on the most ill-advised retaining wall project I have ever seen. It was the longest summer of my husband’s life, though the accounting of hours varies widely depending on which spouse is telling the story. Either way, the fault was in the design (and in the fact that this was our first real do-it-yourself project). As a playful homage to the former backyard, I wanted to maintain the circular shape and dimensions of the pool. I didn’t just want one big circular patch, so I drew up these plans:

Never going to make it in art school . . .

Never going to make it in art school . . .

Then, we added a large circular planter in the middle for wildflowers. The concept was pretty, but not the most practical. The beds were three feet wide (the necessary width, according to “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies”), but the shape has not been conducive to really efficient use of growing space. And those curves made cutting the capstones an odious task. Either way, though, it looks way better than the stupid pool did.

Once the planters were finished, we had loads of topsoil and mulch delivered. The topsoil went into the planters and was mixed with a few bags of composted manure. The mulch went around the paths. The mulch wasn’t really necessary, but I didn’t want to mow or weed whack around the retaining walls. We also rented a breaker (like a little jackhammer) to break up the huge blocks of concrete that held the foundations for the deck.

After 2 long months . . .

After 2 long months . . .

Aerial view

Aerial view

We began our gardening adventures on a very small scale. As we get closer to spring, I will do a lot more posts about getting started with growing veggies for those of us with black thumbs, but in a nutshell, we started with a single planter using transplants purchased from our local nursery: tomatoes, jalapenos, and herbs – I wanted salsa and bruschetta. I used chicken wire to keep the critters out, and it was cheap and effective. During our first year, I learned that planting mint in the ground is a decision you will regret for at least 3 years – spreads like an STD at an exclusive prep school.

Basically, our plan was to add plants to one more planter and try a couple of new vegetables each year. The second summer, we started our own seeds (not as easy as it sounded) and did two planters, adding a few new varieties of tomatoes, bell peppers, and zucchini. We learned even more that year: starting plants from seed is not always successful, tomato cages can come out of the ground pretty easily but never go back in, and that the rabbit fencing we used last year was effective and necessary. The yields that year were very, very low – we lost a lot to transplant shock and bunnies. At the end of this summer, I used donated native plants from my cousin’s backyard garden of eden and put together the wildflower planter in the middle. This is a great way to start with native plants for those of us without a clue – talk with people who know what they are doing and take their plants when they thin things out. A storm took out a lot of our plants that first year, so the planter does not look the way I had planned it, but nobody notices. We just watered it until the plants were established, then let nature take its course.

This year has been our third growing season, and it has been significantly better. That wildflower planter is not perfectly composed, but we have had lots of great color and texture out there. The secret is having it far away from the house so that, from a distance, it looks nice and provides an excellent visual in the middle of the vegetable patches.

Middle planter

Middle planter

The wildflowers also attract lots of wildlife, including butterflies and bees. The butterflies are beautiful, and the bees provide necessary pollination for all of our veggies, especially the squash plants.

One of our butterflies

One of our butterflies

I found an enclosure system that was affordable and worked for us – metal stakes from Lowe’s and rabbit fencing (smaller gaps at the bottom to keep baby bunnies out). The rabbit fencing was a little more expensive than plain old chicken wire, but we have fewer sharp edges and better visibility. We did all four planters and added a bunch of new vegetables, all of which we started from seed. That second year was quite the learning curve, but it paid off pretty well already this year, and we can’t wait until next!

Not a great pic, but you can see that all planters are in use, mostly creating delicious things

Not a great pic, but you can see that all planters are in use, mostly creating delicious things

The neighbors forgave us in time, and I have never once missed that pool. I’m sure I’ll have some explaining to do once our kids get a little older, but it was still totally worth it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pick some tomatoes for dinner . . .

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