BluGill Urban Farm
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A Beginner Mason’s Garden Edge

June 15, 2013 in Stone masonry, Urban Farming

It is that time again, for another installment of “the Adventures of Blu Gill Urban Farmer.”  This week we examine the topic of laying bricks to make a nice garden edge with basic tools and no mortar.  Let’s review a pictorial of the steps recently followed at Blu Gill Urban Farm.

Preparing the area

1) Using a hoe, rough out the starting area for your brick edging.  2) Remove any large debris and level  the area.  I recommend at least one-half inch to 1 inch below grade.  3) I highly recommend using a large nail or stake and string or twine to maintain a straight line.  4) Be sure the area is level or if water drainage is an issue, you can use a level to ensure th eslope is falling in the correct direction.  Normally, your edging will be level left-right and up-down.  For the edging near the perimeter of the house, a slope away from the house is extremely important.  For other areas of your yard you can follow the slope of the yard as necessary.  Bricks could be stepped down and stacked for larger slopes, but mortar would probably be needed.

5) Your area is prepped and generally leveled or sloped sloped. I also use a hand-fork to comb through the surface of my prepared area to ensure the soil is not packed tight and all larger rocks have been removed from the area.

Laying the Bricks

6) I prefer loosening the soil which allows me to compact it to the desired level at time of installation.  Rather than use a rubber mallet to pound the bricks into place, I use a left-over concrete pave stone.  I find it actually works better than store bought tools. It has the perfect amount of mass and area to lay bricks.  Earlier in the project, using a rubber mallet had an unfortunately outcome.  The mallet came in contact with my index finger, seriously smashing the tip of my finger, probably requiring stitches.  But, I cleaned and bandaged the wound and a couple weeks later the finger healed nicely. Please take precautions around the use of any tools and consider protective wear, such as gloves and safety glasses. Also, take your time, plan, and if you become tired, take a break.  In the summer heat, be sure to drink lots of water and wear a brimmed hat and sunscreen lotion.

7) Once the initial bricks are lain, use a level to check the width and length.  On the first attempt, the two initial bricks appear dead-on level short-way; 8) long-way shows a slight slope toward us.  9) Carefully lift the brick from its placement, add fine soil or mason sand to the needed area. 10) Once again, use a mallet (or make-shift tool) to pound the top of the bricks to an even level. 11) Pounding on the edges where the two bricks meet ensures each meets each other at a similar level. 12) Check your handy work again, and when both directions indicate proper slope,  move onto the next brick. 13) Lifting the first brick shows the well-packed soil beneath the brick.

14, 15, 16, 17) Continue repeating the above steps again and again, pounding the top of the bricks to reach the desired level, and pounding the sides to pack in each new brick into your pathway.

Making more permanent

18) After about an hour the path will begin to form, progress can be seen.  If your soil is clay-like and sandy, sift the soil around you and sprinkle on top of the completed brickwork. Or, purchase mason’s sand and sprinkle over.  19) Use an old broom and sweep the sand into the grooves of the bricks. 20) Eventually the sand will fill the gaps. 21) Carefully spray a fine mist of water on the recently sanded bricks to allow the sand to become moist.  22) The moist sand water will accumulate in the crevices to form a bond to one another like mortar.  Let dry and repeat if any obvious gaps remain. The bricks can still be pulled apart with enough force, but the adhesion should withstand any normal wear and tear.

23) After several days the bricks will make a very nice semi-permanent edge.

The finished product

24) Continue to lay your path, properly prepare the area, lay straight level twine for the best edges, spread loose soil or sand, pound bricks into place, and leveling each one, and within a couple hours, the garden edge will begin to shape.  25) After several hours and a couple days’ time, the backyard will truly begin to take shape.

26) A nice grass edge and pathways will materialize.  27) Until finally, the area is fully formed, with lovely red brick edging for a well defined grass area.

Disclaimer: Remember, the authors at BluGill Urban Farm are not professionals, have no special education or training, and far from experienced on the topics discussed. The information is provided as-is with no guaranty of success. Professionals and Do-it-Yourself (DIY) veterans may provide more appropriate methods. These techniques, however, have succeeded as described in the articles, and should adequately get the job done for anyone wanting to create using the most basic tools. These techniques are provided as guidelines when a professional landscaper, DIY’er or specialized tools are not available.- BluGill Urban Farm

Benefits to Making a Rock Quarry

June 8, 2013 in Stone masonry, Urban Farming

A Rock Quarry? Really?

If your backyard is a relatively new developed area such as what I find here at BluGill Urban Farms, you may find soil devoid of good organic matter to encourage plant growth and more likely than not, a whole lot of unwanted rocks. Every time I place my shovel in the ground, WACK! I hit another rock.  In fact, my soil is particularly full of rock; the native ground is actually a very thick mountain of granite (white with black speckled variety).

Even in richer soils, you may still find undesirable materials such as rocks and construction debris, even if you don’t find your garden sitting on a bed of granite.  I decided to experiment at making a rock quarry out of the native soils in the yard; could I succeed at removing unwanted materials from the area and creating creative good uses in other areas of the garden?  Time will tell.  Later we will attempt to find cleaver uses for the rock material:  what a great idea for a future article.

Recommended Tools

First, what tools does one need for such a task? Please see previous Article: Tools of the Trade  discussing various tools you may want to use for Masonry, carpentry, gardening, landscaping.

Common tools working with rocks: Cart, Sifter, Bucket, trash can

If you are unfamiliar with typical types of tools used for such a task or just curious, please review the photographs in the previous article for the most common garden and mason tools.  Common tools working with rocks is also displayed to the left of this text for your convenience as well as in the previous article.  Rock sorting may require a standard shovel, perhaps a hand spade and fork, a large bucket, a small refuse container, gloves and a cart.  I recommend gloves if a high chance of unknown construction debris may be found in the digging area, such as rusty chicken wire and nails.

In Arizona, there is a likelihood to encounter a scorpion in the soil, although I have yet to encounter one personally while digging in the soil.

Sample mound of un-sifted soil in the foreground; bucket, sifter and cart in the background.

Since landscaping nearly always requires digging in the soil, the tools referenced above and in the previous article are a good choice to make sure is available regardless of whether you will be going to such extremes as I, at creating a rock quarry.  If money is tight, a couple good shovels are key; consider the fiberglass handles.  These are made better and the material will last a life time.  If you do choose the wood handled variety to save on cost, be sure not to leave them out in the elements, heat or rain.  Consider sealing them with a water sealant to protect the wood for up to 5 years of heavy use.  I recommend Thompson’s Water Sealant, found in any local hardware store.

The Quarry

First, decide to dig out a small area large enough for a raised garden bed.  Once the pile of removed earth is formed, set up a sifting station near the area, to easily sift through the soil, sort the rocks into sizes and categories based on the common types of material particular to my backyard, and transport to an unused area of your yard for later use or for later hauling away if you no plans to use the excess material.

I recommend having at least two sifters; one with screen mesh less than an inch to a half-inch opening, and another for finer sifting of around one-quarter inch mesh.  The larger sifter allows me to quickly sort out the construction debris and gather the rocks larger than one-half inches, set them aside to hopefully find a decorative or building project in the future.  you can make a rock sifter out of old unused components.  I created my larger diameter sifter from an old unused floor fan; see the resemblance now?

The art of sifting is merely scooping 2 to 3 shovels full  of soil into the center of my sifting apparatus, making shaking motions (back and forth) or swirling motions (clockwise and counter-clockwise), stop periodically to pull out the largest stones and debris, and repeat as necessary until I am satisfied the finer material has fallen to the lower bucket.  I find using a four-wheel garden cart to transport my left over material to another area of the yard much less labor intensive than carrying the bucket or hauling with a wheelbarrow. Dump the material into a designated Rock Quarry area, to later eye the treasure and create future uses.

The finely sifted material is either re-integrated into the garden area, usually mixed with mulch and top soil picked up from a local nursery or mulching farm, or placed in its own pile in the Rock quarry until needed.  I sometimes sift the finer material further, since the first method captures a lot of one-quarter inch rocks with the sandy and silty  soil.  Sifting out roughly one-quarter inch and sometimes smaller gravel, may provide another potential use for the for the gathered gravel without having to purchase a ton of it (literally), paying a delivery charge for transportation, corralling a labor force to move it a mere few feet from the front delivery site to the backyard, when the material already lays everywhere in my backyard for the taking.

Sifting apparatus showing sorted material: 1) jagged rocks, 2) debris, 3) river rock

Smooth river rock and debris

The photo to the left shows the material typically found in my particular soil, which includes smooth small river rock, construction debris including chicken coop wire, wood cuttings, concrete, stucco chunks, rusty nails, and screws.   The photo to the right shows the growing pile of river rock for my efforts and a black tree container repurposed as a trash bin for my construction debris.

Toss the debris into a trash container, add the river rock and jagged rock to another pile, combine similar sized rocks into separate piles, and your rock yard will begin to shape from your make-shift rock quarry.  Try designating the storage rock yard in an unused out of the way area in your backyard, or an area that will not be used in the immediate future to avoid having to move your sorted material multiple times.

My final photo to share with you is the living, growing Rock Yard.  I use other larger rocks to separate the various separated materials.  I also create a designated place for my top soil, mulch, and other dirt as I introduce it into the backyard.

The Rock Yard

Conclusion

I understand that this may take a significant amount of back-breaking time to accomplish and if merely a cost at $15.00 an hour applied to the manual labor hours, it may make no business sense.  But the satisfaction received from the use of raw materials from excess backyard components offsets the lack of ultimate money savings.  Understand there may still be money saved not having to purchase raw materials.  It could be much cheaper and simpler to purchase the same basic material from a rock yard or home retain center.   However, have you heard the term, “dirt cheap?”  Like everything else, dirt and rock is no longer cheap.

Not only do I receive great satisfaction, but there is much more beneficial Earth favoring effects working a simple backyard garden in that manner, including creating an Earth conscious and ‘go green’ environment of recycled components.  Otherwise, the same unusable material would be hauled away (at an expense) to a dump site (for a fee), and add to the ever-growing trash material to the ever-shrinking disposal sites.  I am far from a tree-hugger, global warmer, New Age Hippy or whatever term may apply, but, if everyone made a simple attempt to protect the Earth, everyone can agree that cannot be a bad thing.

Remember, ones leaves behind only the permanence (or consequence) of ones actions.

Happy Gardening.

Build a simple Nightstand

May 27, 2013 in Carpentry, Urban Farming

I know I promised many that I would begin sharing details of our urban farm endeavors, however, we had a three-day weekend (Happy Memorial Day), and thought I could take advantage of the extra time to be creative.  So, I would like to take a short detour and share my attempts at creating a small, simple nightstand.

A few weeks ago I recently started reading books before bed again (it has been far too long).  I have not had a nightstand near my bed for some time to purposefully avoid placing my alarm anywhere near me to easily hit the snooze button.  My alarm clock sits clear on the other side of the room to force me up with the roosters (not too successful). When I began reading nightly again, I needed a small light source for my night time reading, and somewhere to sit it on; hence the idea to build a small table to use as a nightstand. I thought this would be a perfect article to share on the BluGill Urban Farm website.  Other than a wine rack created around 2007 (pictured below) and a backyard garden fence (another article?), I have very little skill making anything.

 

So how did I fair creating this pile of wood:  into this:

Raw nightstand wood (Photo 0)

Completed Nightstand (Photo 13)

Come see.

Gather the wood

Nightstand rough sketchFirst, I visited a local hardware store and checked out their pile of less than perfect pieces of work.  I picked up several pieces of good quality useable oak boards for about $4.00 each.  I also checked out a large home hardware outlet and picked up additional pieces of poplar matching the height and width of my plan, so chose to use the poplar pieces instead of the oak.   The long thin pieces (1/2″x2″x2′) that make up the table top frame and the front cap cost $1.72 each. The larger pieces that make up left and right leg and table top (1″x12″x24″) cost $9.54 each.  And the half-size piece to became the bottom shelf cost $2.98.  The wood supply for a single night stand totaled under $37.00 (not including screws, glue and equipment).

Recommended Tools

I have read about and seen first hand the benefits and ease of the Kreg pocket hole jig drilling system and thought I would try it out.  I am aware of three separate hole sizes.  For material 1/2″ thick, the Mini pocket hole jig is necessary.  A jig is a term used to reference a template of sorts in wood working and other industries.  You can pick up the Kreg mini jig at www.rockler.com for around $20.00.  Phoenix actually has a Rockler brick and mortar store, and the Mini jig sold for just under that price and the 2″ square driver bit (for the recommended screws) was around $6.00. Don’t forget your clamps (Kreg small clamp approximately $23) This small furniture design would be perfect to try my hand at using the Kreg Jig system.  And for an investment of under $50.00, I may just be able to start making strong, sturdy and simple furniture.

The Kreg Jig Setup

Measure your material thickness (top to bottom) and follow Kreg Photo 2 placement.  Examine Kreg Photo 1 to calculate the stop ring placement on the drill bit.  To check your figures, place the drill bit all the way through the jig to see the travel distance (Setup Photo 3) as a reality check.  If satisfied, clamp the jig tight onto wood member and drill (Kreg Photo 4).  Repeat as necessary.  See the images below for an idea of the Kreg Jig system.

The Build

See gallery below for images and explanation of the build process.  From start to finish, it took a novice (me) about seven (7) hours to purchase the equipment, cut the wood to size and pre-drill holes with the Kreg Pocket Hole jig, and assemble it primarily with wood screws and glue.  The following day the piece was ready to be stained and placed in action.  The material cost was well under $50.00, and the special jig used was a minimal investment at a price tag under $50.00.  It took no more than 2 hours to measure and cut the pieces on a circular saw and miter saw table, and another 5 hours to drill the pocket holes and assemble the pieces into the final product.  The following day, I spent less than an hour applying the first layer of stain.  I plan to sand down the surfaces with varying grades of sand paper to create a smoother shinier finish and re-stain it before I consider it completed.  I also plan to create a top drawer or shelf with the extra wood pieces.

All in all, this was a very rewarding simple exercise.  The Kreg Pocket Hole system proved to be the most efficient and easy manner to create this piece of furniture, especially for a novice such as myself.  I am sure a more experienced wood worker could create this in under 3 hours.

What do you think? Have any experiences to share? Have a correction to this article? Feel free to contact me with any constructive comments.

Tools of the Trade

May 17, 2013 in Gardening, Stone masonry, Urban Farming

Since the dawn of time…  okay, I won’t get too ‘korny.’

Man (and woman) use tools to complete tasks, solve problems, and save time and energy, that is no secret.  An urban farmer needs a variety of tools as well, whether planning your garden, preparing your selected area, separating those zones with edges or barriers, building structures and other improvements, harvesting, and just about any task you can imagine. Many may not realize the plethora of tool choices actually available.

Do not under-estimate the need for these multitude of tools.  I have heard more than once, “It is important to have the right tool for the job.”  I never quite accepted that statement, or fully appreciated it until I began this experiment in life, creating an urban farm.  All the same, do not be discouraged or quit your endeavor if you are unable to acquire the ‘preferred’ tool.  Use the available tool.  It may not be the most efficient method, but ultimately you will gain experience and complete the task, albeit not as efficient as someone with more tools in their arsenal.

I have learned by watching others more experienced than I, that run to the local hardware store multiple times during a single project to purchase just the right product or tool for the task.  Don’t be mistaken, I see the value in using the best tool, but I also see the value in planning ahead to reduce those trips and the reality of accomplishing tasks with the available resources.  My chosen paths will almost never describe the best method or tool.  When the best tool is known or available, I will certainly point that out.  As experienced urban farmers, carpenters, masons, and similar trades read my efforts, they will certainly detect my errors and may know a better or more ‘correct’ method.  However, I won’t let that discourage me from learning as I go on my own, and it should not discourage you, either.  I will catalog and store the knowledge gleaned from those more experienced.  I, however, am not afraid to try and fail, with or without the best tool in my shed.

Common Garden Tools

Having a variety of garden tools is important but not necessary.  You should obtain the most basic common garden tools such as shovels, rakes, hoes, and forks. See picture of common garden tools below. A scuffle hoe is important for weeding an area.  A heavy duty rake is good for heavy-duty movement, such as rocks and large amounts of dirt.  A leaf rake is good for smaller items such as leaves, small pebbles, and fine detailing an area. I find a square shovel good for long straight cuts such as for trenches, or shoveling large quantities of soil.  I use a spade shovel primarily for deep digs such as tree planting, or getting beneath large rocks.  In fact, I picked up a twist tiller for around $10.00 that has worked best for digging deeper and breaking apart the hard rocky soil in my desert soil.  In fact, it does better than a post hole digger, pick axe  or spade shovel in getting deep holes for posts and trees.  I have managed to dig almost 24″ deep in my extremely solid soil by using the twist tiller (combined with a small spade or shovel) where no other tool comes close. While it doesn’t work as well as seen on TV, it probably works better in your soil than in mine.

These tools are commonly used to prepare a garden or flower bed, which means digging up soil and disposing of excess.

Other common garden tools not pictured: twist tiller, spade shovel, fork, pick axe and of course water hose and nozzle ; if you see some common tools missing, please share.

Common Mason’s tools

When working with stone, rock, concrete, pavers, and bricks, common tools may include a level, rubber mallet, mining pick, chisel, hand spade and fork. Before setting off to mason, laying pavers or bricks, you must first dig out an area, lay a rock base, cover with sand and level.  Much of these tasks, too, include digging up soil and dealing with the excess. Are you sensing a pattern?

Other common tools not pictured: string, nails, stakes.

Our Urban Farm basically sits on top of a granite rock.  The top soil appears to be a mixture of native soils (caliche clay, sand and very little organic material), crushed native granite, and construction debris.  Every new task in the soil seems to include hard labor in the rock mines.  Local professional landscapers familiar with this area joke that a standard gardening tool is a jack hammer, and unfortunately, they are correct.  I personally haven’t resorted to a jack hammer, but I certainly understand why professionals tasked with completing projects efficiently would resort to a jack hammer.  This leads me to my next topic.

Working with Rocks

I thought it would be a great topic to share the trouble with my native soil, the size and amount of rocks in  my yard, the upturned construction debris, and creative ways to use this material to my benefit.  I wouldn’t be surprised to pull out a pink Cadillac from my backyard.

To ‘mine’ rocks from your yard (in order to create an urban farm) I recommend using in addition to the common mason hand tools and common garden tools discussed above, but also a 4 wheel cart (or wheelbarrow), small buck, large bucket, trash bin and multiple sizes of sifters.  See images of all three sets of common tools below.


Common garden tools

Common mason hand tools

quary quarry dead ddda d dfasdf

Common tools working with rocks

Conclusion

Many tools are needed to start an urban farm, to garden, to clear away land to make room for improvements.  Understanding the particulars of your task and geographic characteristics and assessing necessary tools is an important step to successfully create an Urban Farm.

Please follow us as we build our backyard urban farm with actual first-time attempts, once these initial background posts are complete.   Over the next several weeks, we will share our attempts at clearing our yard by setting up a make-shift Rock Quarry, laying brick paths, garden edges and patios, creating various raised garden beds, planting trees, fruits, vegetables, laying sprinklers and drippers, harvesting (hopefully), building simple wood furniture and structures, and lots more surprises too.  We already have a number of articles outlined and planned.  We will share details with pictures. We believe it will be very entertaining, maybe for those who know us personally, perhaps for others as well.

This site (www.blugill.com) hopes to share common, simple, inexpensive methods to tackle various projects.  If we at BluGill Urban Farm can try and succeed, or try and fail, and fail, and fail again and keep trying until we succeed, anyone can create. We possess no prior experience or formal training how to grow crops in the desert or elsewhere for that matter.  We have no special skills or training building, masonry, carpentry.   Our articles are not intended to be step-by-step how-to do it the right way articles; only that if we can do it, anyone can. We only intend to inspire others to try.

Please feel free to contact us to share your stories.