I began my garden project in June of 2015. The yard had been home to Hector, a pit bull terrier (two for a while until one of them ran away one day) that I often referred to as a “landshark” because of his habit of chewing everything he could get his mouth around. He chewed up all of the sprinklers, pulled out the pipes, dug out buried sprinklers, gnawed on the electrical connections to the air conditioner, and he disabled my barbecue twice eating the propane hoses, regulator, a knob, a wheel, and the fold-down prep table. Adding salt to the wound, he tore a couple holes in the cover, too.
If I tried to plant anything and hand water it, he would eat the hose, and then the plant. He ate a lime tree and a lemon tree. He chewed the trunk, snapped off branches and the dug it up for good measure. It was useless to resist. So, I didn’t. I shut off the automatic sprinklers, picked up trash but didn’t repair the irrigation pipes. I stopped watering and didn’t leave a hose in the backyard. I didn’t plant anything. Eventually, weeds took over. The yard was green in the spring, yellow and brown in the summer, bare in the winter. Dirt migrated from the east and north to the west and south. It piled up against the walls on one side but exposed the foundation of the eastern wall.
I promise I will get to the garden in just a moment. If you want to skip ahead, and I don’t blame you, just scroll down to the picture of a barren wasteland of a yard.
But, Hector was a good dog, in a way, and deserves some memorial. We tried to socialize him. I took him to a dog park a couple times. But, even though I think he thought he was playing, every interaction turned into a fight, a brawl. Hector was big, strong, and iron-willed without much concern for pain. He was never aggressive toward me or any of the family, but he was playful and mischievous. He was at times quite clever, but he could also make a box of rocks view him with condescension. He loved to play keep away. Honestly, I never wanted to play it with him, but it was hard not to. Like I said, he was stubborn. I would get a ball to play fetch. I would throw the ball and he would tear after it, dust flying, weeds thrashing, tongue lolling and eyes lit up with joy. He’d pounce on the ball, snatch it up in his mouth and gallop back to me.
But, he wouldn’t drop it. Not right way, anyway. He’d stare at me, huffing breath around the ball, sounding like an asthmatic steam train. His eyes seemed to laugh, delighted to be holding on to the ball and daring me to take it. “Drop it,” I’d say. Nope. This would repeat. So, I would turn away, not looking at him, to tell him that this was not the game I wished to play. I would hear the ball strike the ground behind me. So, I would turn to find him standing over it, mouth agape in what looked an awful lot like a grin. “There. I dropped it.” Was the game over? No. As soon as I made a move to get the ball, he would scoop it up again and dash away. I wasn’t playing keep away, but he was.
Over time, I would teach him that if he wanted to play, he had to drop the ball and sit and allow me to take it. Mostly he did that. When he did it right, I would praise him and rub his neck and ears. If he did it wrong, I turned my back. The thing is, he knew exactly what I wanted. But, he was trying to train me just as much as I was trying to train him. Let’s be clear, I am not a dog lover. I appreciate them. I respect them. I can even be fond of them. But, they are just too much work. If you don’t bathe them, they are dirty. If you don’t groom them, they get hair everywhere, maybe even if you do. I didn’t really want a dog but the family did and it was useful to have him in the yard as a deterrent to thieves and criminals. Honestly, though, I really didn’t have the energy or inclination to spend the kind of time with the dog that he needed, nor did anyone else in the family.
To be fair, he was strong. He weighed, at his peak, about 65 pounds, most of it muscle. He had a huge neck, broad chest, wide jaws, and bulging shoulders. I had named him Hector after the legendary great Trojan warrior (as I had graduated from the University of Southern California). I thought it was a good name (but I had to explain to everyone since no one seemed to make the association and instead thought I may as well have named him Carlos or Juan). In addition to being strong, he had a terrible habit of going berserk every time he saw another dog, or even heard one. I tried hard to walk him and get him trained. Seriously, I did. I watched videos, mostly Cesar Milan’s, read books. We took him to a trainer. I used a short leash and tried to be consistent. But it was exhausting.
In 2015, we found out he had cancer. It was in his lymph nodes before we even thought something was wrong. He was diagnosed in April and by June he was so slow, his breathing so labored, that we thought it was cruel to keep him like this. We had even let him sleep inside for the last weeks of his life. Tumors were spreading all over his body. The doctors told us that treatment would cost $5000 and extend his life maybe six months. We tried to make him comfortable. In June, I took him to the Humane Society. I went alone because no one else in the family could stand it. He still acted cheerful, but he was subdued, slow, and clearly not long for this world. I held his head in my lap and stroked his neck and sides as he took his final breaths.
That left us with an empty back yard and I had some choices to make. I couldn’t leave the yard the way it was: a dry, dusty, expanse of dirt mounds, weeds, rocks, and even trash. Geographically, we live in the inland region of Southern California, a very hot, very dry area. My soil is loam, a combination of sand and clay. Sometimes there’s more sand, sometimes more clay. But, one thing there is always more of is rocks. Little rocks, medium rocks, big rocks. Many of them are around the size of an Idaho potato, but there are a good amount of them that are larger than that, and even some very significantly large. I’ve dug up several that are well over 12 inches wide and have used them in the landscape. So, every time I dig, I deal with rocks, the vast majority of them granite.
We used to have a lawn back there and a very small concrete curb that ran around the perimeter of the yard. There was some kind of bush out there, but otherwise, there was never much in the way of flora back there. But, at that point, I was dealing with a blank slate. I decided I did not want another lawn. I was intrigued by the idea of California native plants. I was inspired by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, CA and thought I could create a space that was inviting, beautiful, functional, and low-maintenance along with low water-use. I began to sketch a plan.
I needed a retaining wall. The eastern block wall that runs along the perimeter of the yard is about 4 feet higher than the ground level of the house. We already had a concrete slab off the back of the house and an aluminum patio cover. The concrete was curved artfully, so that was kind of nice, instead of straight lines. Due to the elevation of the block wall, I needed dirt to stay in place. I decided a retaining wall would be a good idea. Eventually, I chose Angelus Block retaining wall blocks. They have a little lip on the back that overlaps the block underneath.This both provides a set-back so the wall leans in to the dirt it holds back and the lip also keeps the blocks from sliding forward. Once you backfill it, the wall is solid and it’s rated to go up to 3 feet easily. The face is rough creates an interesting pattern.
I began to move earth, digging out a line and a trench because the bottom row needs to sit below grade for stability. I dug and trenched. I also started using a screen I made to sift out rocks. I had decided I wanted to use the rocks in the landscape. I wanted to make a recirculating stream and the rocks would make the bed. I ordered blocks and sand from Home Depot. The sand was used to make a level bed for the bottom row of blocks. My nephew, Leon, came by and helped dig and trench for a few days and made the work easier. I was doing this in the summer of 2015 and summers get hot. Normal temperatures are easily in the upper 90’s (degrees Fahrenheit, if that’s not clear) and hitting 100 or going over is not unusual. I sweated like drug dealer in DEA convention. The retaining wall runs well over 100 feet and is right around 3 feet tall over the whole length.
My yard is a corner lot and is sort of triangular. I curved the retaining wall around the “point” of the triangle to create a larger terrace to create a level higher than the ground a good sized planting area. And, around this time I began laying out the stream. I ordered a rubber liner, hose, a pump, a basin, and a waterfall weir. Digging, tamping, moving rocks, plumbing. I dug a basin over 3 feet deep to catch the water and act as a reservoir for the stream. The stream bed is right around 25 feet long, but is curved and makes a bend.
The first thing I did was to lay out the path for the stream and then dig out and shape the channel. I made sure it sloped gradually. Two thingsI would have done differently: Dig the pit deeper for the reservoir and have the stream lose elevation more slowly. The length of the stream needs a bigger reservoir. As it is, I add water to it about once every day or every other day. In any case, once I had the path and channel, I dug out the reservoir. It is over three feet deep and about the same about wide. It was extremely arduous work to dig. First, there were all of the rocks. I know I keep talking about the rocks, but it can’t be understated how much these rocks impact the work in the yard. Secondly, once I got past two feet down, I had to really lean into the pit to remove dirt. I loosened dirt and rock with a hand pick, then loaded it into a bucket to lift it out.
I bought this sump bucket thing at Home Depot to sit inside the reservoir. I loaded rocks around and on top of it. The pump goes inside of it. The idea is that the bucket takes up space so water can be in there. The rocks act a bit like a filter, even though my pump can pass solids. I cut holes in the sides of the bucket With the pit dug, I plumbed the bucket, placing the pump inside it and running a 2″ wide flexible hose up and out of the pit. The hose runs alongside the stream up to the waterfall weir. Originally, I used a weir with an open top. It was less expensive and I thought it would work fine. It was harder to hide, though. So, later, I bought a weir that is wider, but covered. I lowered the fall, too.
I designed it to be noisy for ambience and add a contrast to the dry landscape. The bed is lined with rocks from the yard. It works pretty well. I decided to finish this area and put plants in first here. I wanted to give an idea for what the space could be. I learned that if I keep the pit area filled with water, it leaks. I have three different pieces of EPDM rubber lining the stream bed and pit. One piece goes from the waterfall to the big bend. The second goes from the big bend along the straight -a-way to the pit. The third lines the pit. At each seam I attempted to use this stuff that is supposed to seal the seams. But, either I did it wrong, it doesn’t work well, or a combination of both. I don’t think it leaks much at the bend since the water runs downhill from there. But, the pit will leak where it joins the stream if water sits there. Oh well.
The biggest “leak” from the stream is into the air. First, we usually have pretty low humidity around here. A waterfall can splash a lot. Every drop of water that splashes out of the stream is lost to evaporation. Also, the stream has a large surface area which enhances evaporation. So, I do have to add water about every day to every other day. Still, compared to a lawn, it uses less water, I think. I lowered the falls and rearranged rocks up there to decrease splashing and help decrease evaporation.
Overall, I’m happy with the stream. It wasn’t very expensive but it adds a focal point, a pleasant sound, and a unique quality to the yard. At some point, I will have to perform maintenance or repairs. The pump won’t last forever, but should go for a few years. I also imagine that it’s possible the f%&^*@! gophers might chew the return hose. And the liner may deteriorate and leak. One thing I might improve if it comes to it might be line the stream with concrete or something more robust. Or, instead, I think I would use a single piece of EPDM without seams so that the pit could stay filled higher. I would like to run permanent power to the pump with a switch and a water line with an automatic valve designed to add water when it gets low. I’d try to put a meter on it to track how much water is being added since that would let me find a leak faster. But, for now, the stream works well.
The next phase of the plan called for planting the north-eastern area. I planted the retaining wall terrace and started laying out a garden path so I could figure out where to put plants. I planned around a couple oak trees. A canyon live oak was planted centrally. A Wizlenii oak is near the corner. Eventually, the two of them will form a canopy of shade. You know, like twenty years from now. These oaks are babies.