Hole made whole

For several weeks, we had this mess in our front yard:

When we had our natural gas fireplace/heater installed, we said goodbye to the hulking oil furnace formerly occupying about 12 precious square feet out of the total 840 in our little house.  We also said goodbye to the underground oil tank in our front yard.  It was hardly noticeable from the surface, but legally we had to decommission it since we weren’t using it anymore.  

Unfortunately, upon removal of the tank, it was discovered that some heating oil had leaked out into the soil.  The contractors had to come back later and dig an even bigger hole to get rid of the soil with the highest level of contamination.  While doing that, the main water line to our house was hit with some piece of digging equipment and dented.  It might not have been a problem, but we insisted it be fixed by a plumber while the ground was still open.  That ended up taking a while to coordinate.  When the plumber finally came, he said he wouldn’t do the work until the contractor filled up the hole most of the way up to where the water line was.  I guess he didn’t want to get in and out of a 6-foot hole.  So the contractors came back again.

They put in some perforated PVC pipes in the bottom of the hole with a vertical PVC pipe sticking up.  Later, they would pump some bioremediation solution into that pipe, I think three different times over the course of about two months.

The yellow pipe you see is our natural gas line.  Fortunately that was not damaged during the digging.  They did know about the water pipe and the natural gas pipe before work began.  Once the PVC pipes were in place, they started filling up the hole with gravel.  And check out how they got the gravel into the hole - by launching it off the end of a conveyor belt from a truck parked on the street.  I took some video of this process.

Gravel launched from conveyor belt into hole from Kelly & Matt on Vimeo.

After that, the plumber came back and fixed the pipe, and later the same day the contractor returned the fill in the top foot or so with clean soil.  Yay!

It still doesn’t look great, I mean it’s a large area of bare dirt in our yard.  But the fact that it is level with the rest of the ground and lacks orange fencing, plastic sheeting, and plywood is such a huge improvement that it looks gorgeous to us.


Heating Oil Tank Removal and Cleanup

On occasion I think to myself, “I would not like to get in a wrestling match with dude X.”  A couple hours after Pat and Matt showed up to remove the oil tank, I thought, “I would not like to get in a shoveling competition with Pat.”  Not to mention, I wrestling with them probably wouldn’t be too much fun either.  And this coming from a guy who loves to dig.  That said, I don’t think I’m ready to make oil tank removal my vocation anytime soon.  

The guys get started by laying out plastic to pile the refuse (dirt/soil) from their dig.  Then after some head scratching about exactly where the tank is and making sure where the gas line is they start digging.  Before I even knew it they had moved my landscaping obstacles.  No fooling around with these guys.  And the digging continued…

oil tank removal, environmental cleanup, garden

Fast forward.  The guys dug like banshees but even they had to submit to the rocky hard pack and get a pneumatic shovel.  They set up a super slick scaffold with a come-along winch (yes Kelly, I’m learning the difference).

Edit: note from Kelly: Matt used to get the words “winch” and “wench” confused, which was pretty entertaining.  Good job, hubby.

oil tank removal, lifting, garden

Fortunately our tank was pretty much empty but clearly they’ve lifted some heavier ones because that beam is seriously and permanently bent.

oil tank removal, garden, pile of dirt

Uh oh.  Plenty of leakage (the black on the underside).  Thank God, wait, and the EPA and WA State Department of Ecology for having a Pollution Liability Insurance program.  We’re on the hook for the removal but that pales in comparison to the cleanup cost and because we were having the tank removed within 30 days of converting to an alternative fuel, the insurance will basically cover the cleanup.

oil tank removal

A different view of the corroded and leaky tank.  It’s not leaky like oil was pouring out but definitely with the pressure of a full tank I can imagine the rates of leakage are non-trivial.

oil tank removal

6 foot man in a 6 foot hole.  Fortunately no bones were found.  Not like we have put much in the way of bones in the yard but ya never know.  Our backyard is a trip because glass practically grows in the soil back there. 

oil tank removal

After they were done removing the tank all the fun paperwork begins.  Fortunately that’s been pretty easy.  They covered the excavation and fenced around it.  I reminded them to cover the dirt pile (which will have to be disposed of—again, it’s not like there’s an oil slick coming out of it but there has definitely been a not-so-sweet aroma of oil in my front yard since the removal).

oil tank removal

Did the guys do a good job?  As far as I can tell.  I did add more plastic because a sheet of old broken plywood was definitely not going to keep water out of the pit.  I just hope they finish the job before we get a lot of rain and matters get complicated.  I did have to terminate my tomatillos early but they were more of an experiment so not too big of a loss.  Fortunately I think all of my plantings that had to be moved are going to survive their untimely uprooting (late summer is not a great time to be moving heat and water stressed plants).


The glory of compost and a 3-prong long handled cultivator

I spent about an hour weeding in the yard this past evening.  Seldom, if ever, have I felt exhilarated by weeding.  But today was the day where I was enthralled by it.

I’m slowly reclaiming my front yard from the blandness of green grass.  Actually, my grass is not that green nor does it consist solely of grass… plenty of moss and other typically unwelcome volunteers adorn it (like lipstick on a pig—because the grass isn’t all that green or endearing in its current state).  So over the last month and a half, as the soil has dried with the onset of spring-ish weather and the accompanying occasional ray of sunlight, I’ve been pecking away at keeping the grass from reclaiming what I’ve reclaimed. 

A little perspective:  I’ve dug up patches of grass, covered some grass with compost, converted other parts to raised beds and garden beds.  I wouldn’t say any of it is polished but I think I’m starting to see some sparkle with my diy-landscaper's eye.

Last year I split 8 or 10 yards of compost with my neighbor.  I think I probably ended up with 70% of the pile.  I spread much of this in beds (for landscaping and for veggie growing) in my front yard: some along the planter strip (adjacent to the street), part in front of the foundation of my house, and another part in the front lawn proper (in raised and un-raised beds). Where I placed compost I generally applied it to about 3-5 inches depth.

Today I really started to appreciate the benefits of using compost as mulch.  In addition to my plantings starting to mature (which took some time because many of them preceeded the mulch by a year), I’ve found that the grass that has grown through or seeded in the compost is surprisingly easy to remove.  Not like it comes out as easily as a hot knife through butter, but with my hands and with the assistance of a 3-prong long handled cultivator, the pests are being controlled much more easily than I anticipated.

No pictures downloaded yet, but take my word, mulching with compost produces healthy plants, and combined with a cultivator, it produces a very happy gardener.  One of the great things about the long handle cultivator is that with it, the gardener can be standing and tear out stubborn weeds/grass with efficiency; or crouching and reach a distant but distracting “needs to be pulled” weed without having to raise up or even move much more than their arm; or while planning their next move, thinking about which weed should go next, simply continue to do right by their landscape by doing a little bit of cultivating (breaking the crusty soil surface apart).

I can’t wait to continue the battle tomorrow and to get some more compost delivered soon!  I’m looking forward to this summer when I’ll be able to reap the benefits of my mulching efforts, benefits which include the compost mulch helping the soil retain its moisture which equates to me saving time/money by having to irrigate less.


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Heating oil quandaries

Last spring, I called our heating oil company to inquire about the date of the next refill, explaining that we were considering getting rid of our oil furnace and didn’t want any more oil until we decided.  The nice woman on the phone had said the next refill wasn’t scheduled until September.  Imagine my surprise to come home from work one day in the middle of the summer to find one of those oil company bills on the front door informing us that they had filled the tank that day and that we should send them several hundred dollars.  I called them again.  I was politely informed that despite my previous conversation with a representative of the company, not only is the scheduled refill date subject to change whenever the company feels like it, but our contract clearly states that the automatic refill program can only be canceled by sending in a written request, and therefore we were responsible to pay for the recently delivered oil. 

So what could we do with 300 gallons of oil that we didn’t particularly want or have plans to use?  Well the oil company would buy it back for 60% of its original value and charge a $400 pumping fee, leaving us with maybe $200 out of around $1,000 we paid for the stuff.  No thanks.  I looked around to see if anyone else would take it.  No luck.  I found a couple of people who would take it for free.  I researched donating the oil, but the couple of leads I found who could pump it turned into dead ends and I gave up. 

We hadn’t actually moved forward with our plan switch to natural gas yet, so we decided the best thing to do would be to just keep using oil to heat the house for the 2010-2011 winter.  I had two concerns:

1. Would 300 gallons of oil last the whole winter?  If yes, we could wait until summer 2011 to have the new gas fireplace installed.  If no, we would have to decide whether to move up the timeline on the fireplace or use some temporary heating device.

2. Would the 60 year old furnace make it through the winter?  Now that we had canceled our automatic refill plan with the oil company, we also lost the modest furnace insurance/maintenance program that came with it.  Since we were about to toss the whole thing anyway, if it did crap out midway through the winter, we would have to figure out what to do in a hurry.  That made me nervous because I don’t like to feel rushed when making financial decisions.

On question 1, I think we can make it.  After several weeks of nagging, I finally got Matt to check the oil level in the tank by dipping a random piece of wood into it.  I guess I could have done it, but the yard is his responsibility, it was raining, etc. (i.e., I didn’t want to).  But I did my part by repeatedly asking him to do it, looking out the window and taking this terrible picture:

On question 2, we are almost there.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the previous owner’s diligent yearly inspections and maintenance will pay off and get us through March and April.  I think if we can get to May we’ll be fine.  If needed, we could rely on these two portable heating units we just got:

Did you really think I could resist inserting a dog picture?  Get used to it.

You may have already guessed a third concern I should mention - our oil tank is buried in our front yard.  We have no reason to think it’s leaking, but if by chance it is, my understanding of the law is that basically the whole front yard would have to be dug up.  There is a state insurance program where they cover the costs associated with that (which can be quite hefty), and we signed up immediately upon purchasing our house.  A neighbor down the street had her entire front lawn dug up a few months ago due to a leaking tank.  That is really an understatement because the hole was at least 12 feet deep and went from the sidewalk to underneath the foundation and from the driveway to the edge of the property, and the house (including the foundation) was on stilts.  It was a sight to behold.  There’s really nothing else we can do about that issue right now, so we’ll just keep hoping that when it comes time to decommission the tank, its non-leaking status will be confirmed.


Apple socks

Matt planted two little apple trees in our yard this spring.  One is columnar and I can’t remember what kind of apples it grows.  The other is a Pink Lady, my favorite! 


The Pink Lady (on the right) has grown a lot but doesn’t have any apples growing yet.  It had flowers, so we’re not sure whether it needs some help with pollination.  We have plenty of flowers and bees, and Matt thought the two trees planted on opposite sides of the back yard were close enough to cross-pollinate.  I just read online that you need different varieties to pollinate each other, but that some varieties are sterile and cannot pollinate other trees.  We’ll have to look into that.  The columnar has two little apples, which is pretty amazing considering two months ago it looked like this.

Our yard and gardens are organic, and I didn’t want our two lonely apples to be ruined by any of the various insects that would just love to make their homes inside.  I didn’t see any little holes in them, so hopefully that means no one has moved in yet.  Some people protect apples by covering them individually with paper bags or nylon socks.  I decided to use an old pair of stockings.  I tied knots in each leg every few inches, then cut them.


As for how to secure the socks to the apples in a way that would not hurt their stems but also not allow any room for insects to get in, inspiration came from an unlikely source.  We’ve been semi-obsessively watching The Wire, and for some reason the way Bodie often wears his do rag with the ties loose seemed like the perfect model for apple socks.  Is that weird?  I cut some ties into my nylon socks. 


The juxtaposition of these photos is so ridiculous; I love it.

Worked like a charm.  I hope they grow safely in their socks and we’ll each have one delicious snack in a couple months.


Pruning scraps make pretty arrangements

Everything is blooming!  Despite my seasonal allergies, I love this time of year.  Matt has been a tree pruning maniac.  Yesterday, he cleaned up a tree that was encroaching on our all-important cable line (it’s our internet connection).  The offending tree happened to be covered with beautiful pink buds, so I took a few of the scraps and made a cheery arrangement.  Some of the flowers opened this morning.

Matt also pruned a holly tree and then moved it from the back yard, where it was in the way of the in-progress fence, to the front parking strip.  Who knows if it will survive.  He made a dry arrangement from holly and pieces from another tree.

On the subject of things blooming, we have some flowers on our tiny columnar apple tree!  It’s maybe 3.5 feet tall, but maybe we’ll get some little apples even this year.  Hopefully our yard will entice some bees to pollinate everything.

Spring is on!


Fence Project (ancillary benefits)

A great thing about this project, building the fence, is that in the process of tearing down the the old one and clearing some of the landscape for the new one, resources that I need for caring for the yard (mulch) and building raised beds/chicken coop/kennel (old fence slats and 2x4s) have been generated in spades.  Best thing, I didn’t have to pay anything for reusing these materials.

Before I could get going with the fence, I had some clearing to do.  Some trees and their branches were totally in the way of the the planned fenceline.  Others needed some serious pruning to the point that topping seemed to be the only economic and easy solution to getting them back into shape.  But holding off until after the fence was built would have made the job trickier—the fence would have been at great risk of getting smashed up by falling branches.

The most challenging branch, actually the trunk.

My neighbor lent me his electric chainsaw.  Nice and light, surprisingly tough, and small enough to work in small places.

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Squirrel update: hopefully they’re not keeled over in the neighbors’ yards

We got a couple suggestions to mix cayenne pepper in with the bird seed, since capsaicin is an irritant to mammals but has no effect on birds.  Matt filled up both feeders with seed plus all the cayenne we had in the house.  We’ve since seen several squirrels chowing down on the big feeder and some haven’t seemed to hate it.  One didn’t eat a lot before leaving the yard, but bounded away in the usual squirrel fashion.  I did not witness it, but Matt saw one squirrel snack on the tainted seeds and then proceed to stick his face into the compost pile and roll around in it, but then promptly went back to the feeder. 

Both feeders are still pretty full, so I suspect that the pepper is deterring the squirrels somewhat.  I hope it hasn’t made any squirrels sick.  They are fun to watch and we actually like having them around, as long as they don’t gobble down all the food meant for the birds.  The best is when two squirrels chase each other up and down the trees.  I’ve also always thought a squirrel could make a great pet - I think it would be very satisfying to hold a sleeping one in my hand.  They’re so nimble and seem to be very smart and fun to train, too.


Squirrels are smarter than we are

We have two bird feeders hanging from trees in the back yard.  Every day, squirrels help themselves to the bird seed, despite several attempts at foiling them.  Once, a squirrel actually knocked the larger feeder off its wire and really had a picnic. 

Matt hung small trash lids (painted green) over the feeders.  The squirrels just climbed right down over them. 

Then he found a plastic half sphere to replace one of the lids.  That seemed to help, but then the squirrels figured out how to jump higher.  And climb down from the tree branch. 

This Old House magazine says it’s better to put the feeder on top of a pole with a squirrel baffle just under the feeder, but we don’t really want poles in the yard right now.  Does anyone have a (cheap) solution that keeps squirrels from hanging feeders?