Backyard archaeology

April 1, 2009

Last weekend, D. finally finished up a project that’s been hanging over us for months: hacking out the gigantic Bird of Paradise in our backyard.

One of the raised beds, early in the season

(The Bird of Paradise is in the back)

It’s beautiful, and was one of the things we really loved about our house when we chose it….but that was back before we knew how much of a monster it was! Bird of paradise plants are supposed to be divided regularly over the years; from what we can tell, this one never was, and it had grown into a massive clump of roots that was slowly tearing up the concrete patio and just generally looking raggedy (all while blooming its heart out). Much as we loved the flowers, it had to go. (Don’t worry—we’re transplanting the sections into several other safer spots in the yard!)

So D. has been slowly working away at this project for months now, and a few weeks ago, finally started to make real progress when he broke through to to the earth below in one corner. He spent César Chávez Day gouging out the rest of the huge root ball, and finally succeeded. (The baby tangerine tree behind him is what’s going into the BoP spot in the garden—it’s a dwarf tree, so it won’t have any plans for garden domination.)

The proud digger, with the prize

The proud digger, with the prize

Looks rather small in this photo, but that’s after this:

Green bin full of Bird of Paradise

Green bin full of Bird of Paradise

….and this:

More Bird of Paradise

More Bird of Paradise

In all, D. dug out pounds and pounds of Bird of Paradise root, about a six-foot-by-six-foot spread. He also found roots from the spider plants he spent last year digging out, the apple tree, and some mystery plant with bright pink succulent-looking roots.

The old wall

The old wall, falling apart

More interestingly, though, he unearthed the old footprint of a stone garden edge, and discovered that our brick path actually runs underneath the concrete steps, so it was probably there before the concrete for the patio was laid. That concrete has the names of the children who lived here in the 1940s and early 1950s etched into it, so I’m guessing it’s pretty old, though someone may have built the garden walls up after that point to terrace the beds. We haven’t decided whether to leave the stones exposed or not; if we do, we’ll need to build a new edge for the patio, since right now the bottom of the concrete is exposed (since the little wall built on top of the stones created a little raised bed to make it level with the patio).

The hidden edge

The hidden stones

And par for the course, there were lots of interesting finds in the piles of dirt that came up. We seem to find knick knacks every time we dig, which I guess isn’t surprising for a 94-year-old house in an urban area.

Here’s this weekend’s stash:

This weekend's findings

This weekend's findings

That would be one antique rusty light socket, several white ceramic hex tiles, one wooden alphabet block, one sailor (?) figurine, some glass that seems to be from a drinking glass of some sort (very thin and curved), and miscellaneous mysterious plastic pieces of something. The hex tile is particularly interesting—there was a lot of it, so it must have come from a project of some sort, but we don’t have any in the house now. Hmmm.

And last but not least, I did indeed do something while D. was busy digging! Spring starts went into the two raised vegetable beds at long last, since the weather’s warming up here. We’re still waiting for the new tomato bed to arrive—I ended up having a large planter made after I realized it wouldn’t cost much more than the wood itself—so those won’t go in until the end of the month. But it’s a start, at least! Here’s hoping for a successful season this year.

The hidden edge



  1. That’s a great looking square-foot garden! Did you use the 3 part mix Mel Bartholomew recommends? I’m building my own right now and I can’t find coarse vermiculite…

  2. Thanks! It’s a very interpretive approach to square-foot gardenin so I didn’t use the proscribed mix. We had planting mix from last year and I turned it with fir mulch (which also has various guano and peat added) and compost this year, per the advice of the guys at Grand Lake Ace. (Incidentally, I got the compost at Whole Foods, where they sell the store compost for $2 a bag—not bad until ours gets going for real!) So we’ll see how it goes…. I’m actually trying out John Jeavons’ Grow Biointensive methods this year (though again, adapting them to fit our garden, so not necessarily a good test). It’s something of an experiment in progress, but I’ll post updates as we get into the season.

    Have you tried Ace for vermiculite, though? I’m always astounded by the array of things they can dig up at ours!

  3. I’ll need to check out my local Ace…they don’t have much of a garden center though. However, whatever I’ve ever needed, and they didn’t have, they’ve ordered it for me.

    You’ll get astounding results with Jeavon’s methods. The garden at my last place was structured (mostly) around his principles. My current house is built on a hillside below the reservoir, so the soil is nothing but clay. And rocks. It is so hard that it twisted the tines on a 5 horsepower rear tine tiller! So, I thought I’d try the above-ground method.

    I did finally manage to dig out a narrow section against the house, and I filled it with compost, peat and Kellogg planting mix. Kind of like a container garden in the ground. The tomatoes are already 2 feet tall, the chard is going wild and my multiplier onions have shot up like weeds. But, it is not enough space for all the things I want to grow! I must find vermiculite this week (makes promise to self)!

  4. Patrick, you’re local, no? Give Grand Lake Ace’s Garden Center a call—they’re pretty phenomenal and will usually order anything they don’t have in stock. I bet if they don’t have coarse vermiculite they’ll be able to tell you where to find it. They also deliver to many parts of Oakland, which is a great option for large orders. (The other place that might have it is the Super Long’s on 51st.)

  5. Dude: You found my block! I lost it at 360 62nd st circa 1965! Let me know if you find Moon Dog as well!

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