If you've ever lived in an old house, let alone tried to rehab one, then you know that 1, there are very, very few standalone projects and 2, even the smallest, most mundane tasks often turn into fiascos. This past week, that's what I ran into.
I want to grow grass in the back yard this year. Shouldn't be that complicated, right? Grass seed, water, a little sun...BOOM, grass. That's the end goal, and what I've started trying to tackle now that the weather is warming up a bit.
The challenge is that the soil I'm dealing with is garbage. If you were following along last year then you know that when I took ownership of the place, the yard looked like this:
The place was a wreck, right? I cleared most of the brush and leaves and pine needles, and I trimmed trees like I was getting paid by the limb. Underneath all that nonsense, I found this scattered and buried all over the yard:
BURIED. SCATTERED. AND BURIED.
I'm sure there's still more to be discovered, and while that may not look like much it filled up about 1/6 of a 30yd dumpster. Some high-level math will tell ya that's about 5yds of crap. It definitely put me over the dumpster's weight limit.
Anyhow, I was left with mostly dirt for a yard. I made some late-season attempts to grow grass but it was too hot, and Freckles tore too much of it up running around. This was her first day in the yard - before the grass-growing effort - and the only things that have changed since then are that she's bigger, faster, and more energetic.
The grass that took hold is pretty clumpy and regardless, the yard is still more dirt and weeds than legit grass. So that's how this little ditty starts, me wanting to grow grass.
I need to make the ground a little more conducive to grass-growing and I need to fill in quite a few spots where I dug up masonry debris, which means I need some decent dirt. But getting anything reasonable into the yard, like if I were to get a truck load of clean dirt dumped in the street, is borderline impossible due to the stairs and fences (that I'm not disassembling).
I'm kinda forced to work with what I have, which is OK because as it turns out, a handful of massive trees means a massive amount of leaves and all kindsa other organic matter. And the pool I excavated last summer, that yielded about 3yds of dirt. And even with a dirt yard, I still get a couple bags of grass clippings when I mow the lawn.
If I could just find a place in the yard to mix the dirt, leaves, and grass clippings I may be able to generate some decent compost, and that may just enable me to grow some grass. Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I couldn't think of a decent spot for a compost pile.
I didn't want to build something temporary, because have you seen lumber prices lately? I'm not dropping $150+ on lumber to build a dirt box. And I'm not about the get all Pintresty and tack a bunch of pallets together. Nope.
I didn't want to pile the stuff up in some arbitrary spot in the yard because 1, the dogs would undoubtedly tear it apart (especially Freckles), and 2, the yard already sorta looks like hell and I want to make things better, not worse.
I didn't want to use the brick "patio" - the entire northwest corner of the yard is brick - because that brick was laid back in the 20s and between settling and tree roots, there isn't a single brick that's level with the brick adjoining it; running a shovel across that would probably break my wrists.
And then I got to thinking...there's a concrete slab between the garage and the house. It's not big, but it's solid, flat, discreet...pretty perfect, really. Here's the slab, bottom left corner, as it looked on 5/8/2020, the day I closed.
I have no idea why the slab is there. It's not real square to the garage, although the giant red oak just out of the pic may have something to do with that. I assumed it was maybe 6' one direction and 3 or 4 the other direction.
So the other night after work, I was in the back yard running around with Freckles and I decided to grab a shovel and scrape off the concrete slab. That turned into pulling out ivy and excavating more giant chunks of limestone, and next thing I knew:
I didn't take any "before" pics because I really only intended to spend about 3 minutes with a scoop shovel, moving acorns and leaves off the slab. An hour later, I discovered:
Neat. You had a concrete slab and instead of it being 6x4, it's really 6x6 (6.5' x 6.5', technically), who cares? Right?
Here's the thing: anything on this property that involves a shovel quickly turns into an archeological effort.
While cleaning the gunk off the brick between the slab and the garage, I noticed a spot where a handful of bricks were missing. So I started digging, and I started hitting busted up concrete chunks, and limestone, and the same masonry nonsense I'd previously found all over the yard.
And then I found this, buried, of course:
That's, I believe, the original front porch floor. The tile is right, the colors are right, and given the giant chunk of concrete it's affixed to, it's definitely a floor of some sort. It's conceivable that it was a bathroom floor, but around there, those were usually white with black accent tile, and the front porches were usually white with blue accent tile. I'm calling this the original front porch floor. And it would make zero sense to demo somebody else's porch, drag the debris over to this house, and then bury it.
So that was kind of a cool discovery, although the help wasn't real impressed.
And then I started trying to piece all of it together. I know the house was built in the 1870s. I know the garage was built in the 1920s. I know that prior to the garage, there were at least 2 wooden structures in its place. I believe the house's front porch was added sometime in the 1920s. Brick was once a pretty common way to "pave" large areas so the back yard brick could date to the original construction, but I think it's more likely to have been laid in the 1920s. And then there's the concrete slab, what purpose did/does it serve? It doesn't appear to be new, but it's not THAT old. A cistern cap of some sort, perhaps? When did the bricks and slab happen, and when was concrete debris buried?
And then I got to thinking about the red oak that's just southwest of the concrete slab and sits dead nuts center on the property line I share with my neighbor. It's a massive tree, and I can't overstate this. I started thinking about how old it might be, and when it may have first popped out of the ground.
It's not a great pic, but between the evening shadows and there being no real good vantage point from which to get a pic of the whole thing, it was the best I could do. Here's the base of the tree:
Everything in this pic is a future project, so try not to focus on how gross all of it is. If you look close, you can spot a brick the tree has halfway swallowed. Anyhow, there's a method of approximating tree age based on diameter and a predetermined growth factor, so I got out my tape measure. I couldn't wrap the tape around the tree - I'd need 2, maybe 3 people - so I laid the tape across the tree and eyeballed the diameter. I'm pretty good at that sorta thing, so I'm confident in my number: 46 inches.
The age equation is this:
TREE AGE (IN YEARS) = TREE DIAMETER (INCHES) X GROWTH FACTOR.
The growth factor for a red oak is 6.7.
46 inches X 6.7 = 308 years
THAT TREE IS, POTENTIALLY, SOMEWHERE AROUND 300 YEARS OLD.
That's early 1700s.
There's another red oak in the northeast corner of the yard, almost the same size. Unfortunately, it's pretty close to the alley, which means power lines, which means the utility company has butchered the tree a little bit over the years.
She's deceptively large. I got the tape around 'er, thanks to a little creativity and help from the nearby fence.
120 inch circumference. Divide that by Pi, that's around 38 inches. 38 inches X 6.7 = 256.
That tree is, potentially, around 250 years old. Not quite as insane as 300, but close.
Granted, one can Google growth factors and get a variety of numbers, so these trees may not be as old as the model I used suggest (they may be more like 184 years and 152 years old, respectively). Regardless, in either case the trees predate the house, which I find kinda cool.
So...I want to grow grass in the back yard, and my efforts got sidetracked by digging up an old tile floor and wanting to figure out how old the 2 biggest red oaks in the yard might be.
Sounds about right. With old houses there are no linear, standalone projects.