May 10th, 2007
In the Trenches

Zanthan Gardens
2007-05-10. Thursday morning. Still more digging to do. Much more.

I’m really too tired to write, so this may be incoherent. On Monday, digging the trenches for the concrete foundation beams commenced. You’d think we were building a skyscraper. The old shed/garage (which stood for almost 60 years) was built on a 4 to 12 inch slab, depending on the slope of the hill. The trenches along the edges of our new walls are 3 feet deep and the slab itself about a foot deep. I didn’t realize that the new concrete foundation would be so deep, so much more engineered than the old one. We’re nothing if not safe in the 21st century.

Now that I’ve seen the enormity of it all, I wonder, was pier-and-beam construction ever an option? I assumed not because of the existing slab. I didn’t understand that it probably could have been removed more easily than all this dirt.

Day 1. Monday.
We couldn’t get (by that I mean, I wouldn’t allow) any heavy equipment into my backyard and so all the digging has to be done by hand. As the dirt comes out, I get to direct where it goes. I marvel at having two men to move dirt around. Mounds of good black dirt begin filling various depressed areas of my yard. I rake and dig and take out rocks and throw them back on the fill pile.

Zanthan Gardens
2007-05-09. A 3×15 foot section is topped up with about 2 feet of good dirt from the original vegetable garden. I had just moved part of my mountain of mulch here and now the dirt is on top of it. Perhaps the worms will sort that out.

Then we hit caliche. And there’s no place for that anywhere in the garden. Wherever some drops it forms an instantly impervious layer. Yikes! We start to dump it on the west side of the little house, but that is uphill and will only compound the existing drainage issues.

Day 2. Tuesday.
A third man is added to the digging crew. Caliche is piled on the lawn and in the back where it will cause further drainage problem before we decide that this won’t do.

Ivan suggests building some sort of sculptural mound of dirt on the back lawn, like a big gum drop. . tentatively agree and then discover that it blocks the carefully made view of the south border from my bed. And it gets caliche all in the lawn.

We are running out of places to put dirt.

Day 3. Wednesday
We solve the caliche problem by deciding to haul it away. The men dump a mountain of it on the driveway. I spend most of the day dismantling the sculptural mound and trying to get caliche out of the lawn.

Zanthan Gardens
2007-05-09. More good dirt is piled on the low end of the lawn. I’ll probably take out that tree…where I let a fallen cedar elm sprout out of the old trunk.

A lovely rain about 10:30 pm–not enough to make things mucky or fill up the trenches.

Day 4. Thursday
A beautiful morning after last night’s rain. I take a break from moving dirt and rocks because the garden needs some work. I do manage to transplant a clump of society garlic (thanks, Pam) and dig up some bulbs that need dividing (or rather, need moving to a sunnier location).

Around 3:30, the digging is finished. On the northwest corner and the southeast corner the building is level with the ground.

Zanthan Gardens

The northeast corner, where the pond is, juts 22 inches above ground level. This makes a convenient perch to sit and dangle one’s hand in the water. But on the southwest corner, we are 16 inches underground. Hmmm. Just like the main house. As the Japanese say, Komatta, desu ne.. (This could be a problem.)

Zanthan Gardens

by M Sinclair Stevens

6 Responses to post “In the Trenches”

  1. From Carol (Indiana):

    I’ve been running around my garden for the past week and I thought I was tired until I read this post. All the work will be worth it when you have your new outbuilding.

    That’s what keeps me going. Thanks for the encouragement. — mss

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    Gosh, I never even thought about digging footings. We had a lot of soil to deal with after we made the decomposed granite patio extensions so I can sympathise, M.

    Philo built a couple of raised beds which took some of it, and he made one taller box from lumber that was already in the yard when we came. We planted a small shrub in the box, giving it instant height. But in terms of cubic footage, these ‘containers’ didn’t add up to the volume you’re dealing with. Good luck!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Ah, footings! I knew there was a proper word for it. — mss

  3. From r sorrell (Austin):

    That’s a lot of dirt to deal with. I’m glad I’m not involved in any serious outdoor projects right now… too hot, too humid. Yuck.

    Hmmm…except for Monday, I thought the weather has been pretty nice this week, especially since it’s cooling off enough at night for me to sleep well. Or maybe that’s just the exhaustion. — mss

  4. From Dawn (Austin):

    Wow! You deserve a treat! That is certainly a lot of work. It’s understandable that you’re tired. Just think how stable and well-built this is going to be. I’ll bet, like it’s predecessor, it will last 60 years as well…or maybe 160?!

    Take care,


    Thanks, Dawn. I plan to schedule a massage this Friday and take the weekend off. — mss

  5. From Angelina (Oregon):

    What the heck is caliche. It must be a regional thing.

    That is a whole lotta work you guys have been doing. I love the idea of men hauling dirt around for me. My husband was doing that for me this morning but I’ll bet your guys didn’t complain.

    Still, it’s exciting that in the end you’ll have such a great new place to hang out together and with friends.

    Ah, caliche. Yes it’s a southwest US thing. I’ll put up some photos. — mss

  6. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Thanks for sharing the process with us. Very interesting to see how it’s built, and how the garden is impacted.

    As you know, Pam, I’m very interested in processes and documentation. I’m always more comfortable doing something a second time because I like to understand the parameters of the experience before doing it. The amount of dirt produced in preparing the foundation and not having a plan in place to deal with it to begin with are going into my “lessons learned” file. I won’t be doing this again but maybe it will help someone else. — mss