Yesterday I spent a good portion of the day doing battle with a contingent of honeysuckle and bramble vines that had invaded a stretch of fencing I was trying to remove from a now little-used patch of our property.

Many of the vines were inexperienced, but what they lacked in tenacity they made up for in numbers.  And their base was protected by a thick layer of dead leaves blown against the fencing.  I cautiously probed with pruners (for there was a threat of Copperheads lurking there), slicing and snipping the myriad vinelings to free the bottom of the fencing.

Some vines were more experienced and tenacious, but with a proper concentration of force my pruners handled them.  A few were battle-hardened veterans.  These sent me trekking across the property to bring in my heavy loppers.  Even these stalwart defenders fell when such powerful weaponry was brought to bear.

In the end, though scratched bloody and soaked with sweat (which stings in those injuries) I victoriously dragged that length of fencing out of the battlefield where I could clean as much of the plant life from it as possible and roll it up for use elsewhere.  As I put away my implements of war I was weary but satisfied in a battle well fought – and won.

This morning I find that insidious agents dispatched by the enemy Bureau of Pollination have infiltrated my sinuses and are engaged in combat with my mucous linings.  In addition my upper legs, hips, and lower back are staging a revolt for the abuses they suffered yesterday.  But, such are the wages of warfare.  I shall placate my rebels with drugs until they forget the abuses they suffered and resume their normal functions.

The battle was won.  The way is open to bringing my riding mower in to quell the attempted overthrow of that area by the indigenous species, which are attempting to re-take that sector of property for their own.  That must not happen, shall not happen.  That sector will remain under my control.  I must see to that for the good of the empire!

Black & Decker Lithium Ion Hedge Trimmer

I recently bought a Stihl string trimmer from a local hardware store.  While I was shopping for that, I was looking for a lithium ion hedge trimmer too.

not a lithium ion hedge trimmerI’ve been considering buying a lithium ion hedge trimmer because keeping up with all the trimming that needs to be done using the giant scissors style trimmer is getting to be a real burden.  So I haven’t been doing it.  So things are over-grown.  And now I REALLY need a better way to trim.  Power cords are a pain on a large property and gas power is heavy and noisy.  Lithium Ion batteries are a big improvement over the older NiCad batteries.  That seems a viable solution. Continue reading “Black & Decker Lithium Ion Hedge Trimmer”

Mountain Man May Mower Maintenance

Lawnmower_WalkbehindHere in East Tennessee late April or early May is when we drag the dormant mowing equipment out of the shed and get it ready to serve for another summer. Many GRIT readers will be old hands at this annual task, but for the newbie property owners, this little video tour will show you how easy it is to prepare your walk-behind mower for another season of use.

Let’s recap briefly.

– Check your manual to see what you will need and where critical parts are.

– Start the mower and warm it up so the oil flows better.

– Disconnect the spark plug wire.

– Be careful to tip the mower the right way so gasoline does not run out.

– Drain the used oil completely.

Also, if the oil drain plug is under the deck, you will need to set the mower back on its wheels over a drain pan to remove the used oil. If the plug is in the side of the crank case, you will probably need a plastic tube to pipe the oil over the deck to a drain pan.

Now, let’s move on with the blade removal and servicing.

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Signs of Spring

Spring time here means rain.  Lots and lots of rain.  Our mountain retreat will seem more like Seattle for a month or so from late February through most of March.  The ground will be soggy, the rivers run full, and we make good use of umbrellas and wide brimmed hats (like my fedora).  Not only does it rain often, but some will be very heavy rainfalls, which can lead to the washing out of driveways and roads.  Crusher-run gravel comes at a premium price at this time of year as residents scramble to repair damage to their drives and access roads.  This year with all the budgets cut, including road maintenance, some of our normally top-notch roads are deteriorating rapidly.  One that we normally use as a short-cut into town has become all but impassible because of the pot holes.

Spring Colors

Trees blooming in SpringOn the brighter side; we also enjoy the brilliant colors of spring; all the fruit trees burst into bloom practically overnight, the pink and white of Dogwood trees and the lavender of Redbud trees, yellow of Forsythia and bright red of Quince.  The irises and day lilies have already put up their spiky green leaves and will soon flower into purple, orange and red blossoms.  Pansies are already putting on a show, and a multitude of ground covers are popping open in purple, pink, yellow, and white flowers.  Continue reading “Signs of Spring”

Spring Rain Repairs

driveway, rain, repairsSpringtime in the Great Smoky Mountains means… rain.  Lots of rain.  Some years it rains a little almost every day from mid-February through March, other years it comes in periodic deluges.  A deluge that comes after a long period of daily rain is the worst: The ground is saturated and soft and a hard rain will wash much of it away.

This causes much damage in areas that have been settled and heavily adapted for human use.  Anywhere we remove the natural armor of fallen leaves and cut into the soil we open scars that will allow heavy rains to move that soil around.

I made the little video below as an example of the kind of rain repair work we do on a regular basis in mountainous areas.  I hope you enjoy it.

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The Ups and Downs of Mountain Living

My wife and I moved here to the Great Smoky Mountains region of east Tennessee in December of 2001.  We moved here from St. Louis.  Marie was born and raised in St. Louis, a flat-lander and city girl all her life – up to that point.  I’d been a gypsy: my family was always on the move but we tended to end up most in Texas, North Dakota, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri.  Flat lands.  Marie and I had both traveled through mountains but living on one was a new experience for both of us.  One we looked forward too.

Mountain living offers some unique challenges.  It shares many of the attributes of any rural living.  Most of these I consider an advantage.  But add to those the fact that nothing is flat.  Anywhere.  Everything is on a slope of some degree.  Some is mild: a mere incline.  Some so steep and boulder-strewn you need rock climber experience to get up or down that face.  The majority of the land we purchased is steep, rocky and heavily forested.  About two acres are cleared. In this space we’ve installed two homes – one for my mother, one for us – two storage buildings, a large workshop, and two covered dog pens.

Flat Spots

The first challenge in slope-side living is building buildings.  Most buildings require a flat spot to sit on.  So we must first build the flat spots.  This is done with a track hoe or bulldozer.  Small flat spots can be done with a Bobcat equipped with a bucket.  We don’t want to be hauling dirt in or out if we can avoid it, so we cut into the slope on one side, move the dirt to the low side and pack it firmly.  An experienced operator knows just how much to remove to establish a level spot the proper width – and, somehow, manages to get it quite level, needing only tweaking with a transit.  This ability amazes me: Getting anything level or plumb by eye while working on a slope is more difficult than you might think.  At least, it is for me, a good level is an essential tool here. From that point, home construction moves on normally.

mountain cabins
Rental Cabins in Gatlinburg

Some buildings, especially smaller ones can forego the flat-spotting and be built on pylons or posts anchored into the ground. There are rental cabins near Gatlinburg that have their front porch at ground level and the rest are flown over the edge of a steep slope on tall posts. They look  precarious!


Gaining access to your property from the nearest roadway can be an issue too. Most residents here don’t want to buy a tract of land then build their home next to the road just for convenient access. Most prefer some seclusion, whether it’s for privacy or to facilitate the illusion of being completely isolated from the rest of the world. Though some I’ve seen aren’t far from that!

driveway, rain, repairs
Our home at the top of an 85 foot long, 30° steep driveway. 4WD is required.

Sometimes times a driveway can be bulldozed up a steep slope in a straight line from road to home. If you have four-wheel drive you can generally get up such a drive, but coming down can result in quite a thrill ride when it’s icy!  For a less insane angle of incline the drive needs to snake side to side with switch-backs to reverse direction or cut in from a distant edge of the property and wind its way up and across.

One of the bigger problems is that anytime you cut into the soil, you create an erosion hazard. Heavy rains cause the exposed soil to wash down into your driveway, often burying the gravel under lots of mucky red clay ooze. Retaining walls help to prevent erosion, but inflate the cost of the driveway exponentially.

To get building materials in – especially a concrete truck – the driveway needs to be wide enough and substantial enough to handle that traffic. Around here most concrete companies have all-wheel drive, front discharge concrete trucks that will climb like a goat, but they still weigh many tons and need some space to maneuver.

Once, I saw materials being brought in by helicopter!

Run-off Control

Once the construction is done, water routing comes into play. Ditches, culverts (called “tiles” around here, even if they’re steel or plastic and 36 inches in diameter) and buried drains all come into play to gather, direct and dispose of rain run-off and minimize erosion damage.

Once this is done we can set about trying to establish a lawn in the cleared area around the house and garden beds for food and/or flowers.

Gardens are especially tricky. For my first attempt at a vegetable garden I chose the most level spot on our property, tilled up an 8 x 12 foot patch and used a cultivator to drag out the grass clumps and roots. Using a square-nose spade to remove the grass would have been cleaner, but the only good top soil here is the top 2 inches where the grass grows (we bought a place that had been settled 12 years before and had a lawn growing already). I wanted to keep that top soil if I could because the red clay below is awful for growing anything.

I planted that little garden patch and was amazed after each rain to find my seedling plants wandering about. What were nice neat rows were zig-zags. The radishes were now cohabitating with the lettuce. Everything was out of whack. Fortunately most of the seedlings did survive their rides and went on to put down longer roots to better affix themselves in one place.

That nice topsoil, however, was making a slow march toward the drainage ditch. I needed to do something. If my test garden worked out, I wanted to enlarge it the following year. But this would mean spreading up onto steeper slopes, and more tilled soil would mean more erosion. How could I keep the soil in place?

I thought about terracing. But this would require either many narrow strips or 3 foot high retainer walls in some places. This would make getting equipment – like a regular tiller – into and out of the terraces complicated.

Then I stumbled onto the idea of small raised beds. I built a series of 4 x 4 foot garden boxes, dug in the high corners, built up the lowest corners and have been quite happy with this for the past four years. In fact, I was so happy with this system that I expanded from my original six boxes to 22!

Last year I did some sprucing up by adding low walls between the boxes, weed fabric over the grass in between and woodchips over the fabric. This looks nice, provides me a non-muddy (soggy after a rain, but not muddy) place to kneel, and keeps the mixture of grass and weeds that served as a lawn from polluting my vegetables when I had to go through with a string trimmer to hack them down to size. The trimmer threw all that debris right into my boxes. Rinsing dead grass out of my crinkly lettuce leaves was a chore.  Weed seeds invaded the boxes far more vehemently than normal, too. Paving the walkways between boxes eliminates most of this, and helps keep moisture in the soil.

It’s not perfect. But it’s better.

I’m getting a little long winded here, I’ll pick it up again next time, when I’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of slope side living.

The Rise of Urban Farms

Abandoned home: _AP-Paul SancyaTo most of my readers a farm is not a strange or unusual sight.  Many readers live on farms.  But to most city dwellers, a farm is as mysterious and distant as a tropical rain forest is to us.  Many city kids have never seen how food is grown; they know only that it comes from a supermarket wrapped in plastic.  Some cities have started busing school kids out on field trips (literally) to nearby farms so they can get a look at what a field of produce looks like.  Many cities have parks, and maybe a horticultural garden, but not farm land.  I bet the last place you’d think to look for farm land would be inside a major industrial city, such as… oh, say… Detroit.  The Motor City.  And you’d be wrong!

The city of Detroit has for years been the poster child for urban blight: having lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade and with roughly 40 of the city’s 139 square miles vacant, according to The Detroit Free Press.  But the actions of some residents and organizations may be about to change all that.

In the wake of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Detroit is rebranding itself as The D.I.Y. City, with projects such as urban farms, encouraging small businesses selling locally made products, and residents pitching in to handle municipal upkeep.

Bands of citizen volunteers have been swarming into vacant properties, abandoned and neglected by their owners, to cut grass, clear brush and pick up litter and debris.  Many of the derelict homes are being razed by the city, but some feel there is a better way to go.

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Making It Pretty with Timbers

Published in June of 2013 by Grit Magazine

Actually, what I’ve been building is much more than just eye candy.  The thick bed of wood chips over landscape fabric bordered by landscape timbers that now surrounds all the boxes in my “Lower 10” also serve some good purposes:

  1. It keeps grass and weeds away from my garden beds.
  2. I no longer have to weed-whack between the boxes: always a chore and it sprayed plant bits and weed seeds into my boxes.
  3. It makes a cushy surface to kneel on while I’m working the beds.
  4. The landscape timber borders help divert rushing rain water around my garden so it doesn’t flood the boxes or wash away the mulch.
  5. I’m planting flowers around the perimeter timbers that will draw beneficial bugs (bugs that eat the bugs that eat my garden) and add a splash of color.
  6. This should help maintain the moisture levels in the entire area.

My berry house is also done.  It encloses a blueberry bed, strawberry bed, red and purple grape vines.  Bird netting over the PVC frame keeps the birds away from the berries.

The door is the curved section with all the slats between the strawberry and blue berry boxes.  It’s a flap of bird netting that lifts up to allow me in and out, yet keep the avian fiends away from our berries.  I stabilized the edges by trapping them between two layers of duct tape (sticky sides together) and stapled the slats on to lay across the door frame to prevent the netting flap from falling through the opening.  A piece of PVC at the bottom holds the flap down and keeps it from blowing open in winds.

We just bought some marigolds to plant around the high perimeter to brighten it up a bit and help repel rabbits.  They can chew right through the bird netting.

The Middle 10 was completed just days ago.  This section required shoring up the lower ends of the paths between the boxes (the slope is steeper here), which meant some extra digging to level the timbers.

For the most part, this work is very simply done; no hoopla.  Well, almost no hoopla.

I did angle the cuts when I made the timber pieces that went between the boxes so the ends of the timbers sit flat against the boxes despite the slope, and I could not resist showing off just a little by coping the ends of the timbers where they meet the curved face of another timber.

Otherwise, it’s all pretty much plain-Jane work: timbers, pinned to the ground with rebar, on top of landscape fabric to keep the weeds out and filled with wood chips I make myself by chipping up tree branches from the spring trimming.  But it should ease my maintenance chores, make my knees happy, and it looks pretty nice too.

Building A Boardwalk

Originally published in May, 2013 by  Grit Magazine 

play yard projectSpringtime in the Smoky Mountains means warmer temperatures, greener scenery and rain.  Lots of rain.  Some years we get a few weeks of heavy, almost non-stop rain, other years we get a couple months of lighter rains.  Either way spring time means we’ll be dealing with erosion and mud.  On the monsoon years the quarries do a lot of business with folks seeking rock to repair washed-out driveways.  We’ve had one area that has been a consistent problem for us every year, heavy rains or light rains.

There is a long, horseshoe shaped driveway that comes up from the hard road, loops in behind a mobile home, then goes back down to the road.  The mobile home and driveway behind it are on a shelf cut into the slope to provide a flat spot.  In spring, rain water runs down the mountain side onto the driveway and collects there, making the area really mucky despite a thick layer of gravel on the drive.  Some years, when the rains are heavy the ground saturates so no more will soak in, then water comes cascading over the ridge at the top of the cut-in and flows across the driveway like a river – often taking all the gravel with it.  Even on light rain years the area between the mobile home, which is now my workshop, and the embankment gets sloppy fast and stays that way for weeks.  This was enough of a problem when it was just me going to and from work, but now we are providing foster care for dogs, and the pens are in this area too.

This year I decided to do something to get us all up out of the muck.  I built a boardwalk.  This is not a piece if high-end architectural engineering, nor is it fine craftsmanship.  There were three criteria it needed to meet: 1) It needed to keep us out of the mud, 2) I needed to build it quickly, 3) It needed to be cheap.

The proper way to do a boardwalk would have been to drill several dozen post holes, set short posts in them with concrete, determine height of the posts to get the decking flat and level and cut the posts off at the right heights, notch the posts to accept joists then lay planking across the joists.  Have you ever tried to use a post-holer in muck?  That doesn’t work so well, especially not in our red clay.

What I did was to lay landscape timbers in as sleepers, using pavers as support in the lowest spots, then cutting some old barn wood to use as decking.  This barn had been built by sawing whatever trees were at hand into lumber, so we have a mix of red oak, white oak, poplar, pine and a little walnut, but once it all silvers from sunshine it will match up closely enough.  The boards are not consistent in their thickness and are wildly random widths from 3” to 14”.

I did not want to take the time to plane the lumber to a consistent thickness, so I just watched to be sure I didn’t let it vary too greatly board-to-board.  I did rip at least one edge of each board to get the long edges reasonably parallel so the planks didn’t go angling off to one side or the other – especially in the long narrow walkways.  And I did buy a 5 pound box of decking screws to be sure they don’t rust out right away like most screws would.  I used screws rather than nails so I could easily replace planks if they rot or break.

Looking from the Guest Quarters (dog pen) out toward the workshop.  The metal steps lead up to where we store firewood under cover.  That hairy glob on the left would be part of my arm – I was up against the chain link of the Guest Quarters and taking a tricky shot without being able to see through the view finder.

The one missing piece at this point.  I need to locate a board that will fill this 12″ x 43″ space to join the deck and the lowest step.  There are no more boards that wide in the stack I was working out of, but I have two more outside of the dog yard.

Standing on the boardwalk near the Guest Quarters looking back toward the shop.  All that lumber leaning up against the loading dock is rejected lumber that is too rotted or split to be of any use.  I’ll chunk it up and store it for firewood next winter.  The pile I was working off is on the left at the end of the dock.  About 1/3 of what was there is left.  I’ll move that out to the piles behind the house – some other day; I’m very tired just now.

Standing on the loading dock looking back toward The Guest Quarters.  The pen itself and an area in front of it are floored with 2″ of pea gravel.  A gate at the end of this pad allows access, entering in front of the Guest Quarters then the boardwalk connects the entry pad (pea gravel) with the two sets of steps.  Beyond the loading dock the driveway rises a bit and has a good crown to it, so it is not a problem like this stretch is.

It took me two and a half days to build this project – some of it in the rain – and cost a total of just under $50 for landscape timbers and screws.  The end result undulates a little as it follows the contours below, but it’s not a problem.  The dogs love it!  As they go galloping along the board walk it makes a satisfying drumming sound that makes them sound even bigger and more powerful than they are.

Marie wants me to build a deck around the front steps of our home – THAT will be built with proper footings and construction, I assure you.