Archive for April, 2014

A really long post about digging a hole in the backyard.

This past weekend David and I had a few people over for a yard work BBQ party. It was really fun, and we got a lot accomplished!! David and I started working around 9am on Saturday (well, mostly preparing to have people over to help- filling up water pitchers, mixing up lemonade, setting out sunscreen and work gloves, picking up a load of compost from Pacific Topsoil). Friends and family trickled in all day to join in the work, starting with my brother, who is always on time whether you want him to be or not. Dave and Kate brought baked goods for mid-morning snack, we had a sandwich bar for lunch, then around 6pm grilled up some sausage and bratwurst to eat with the carrot-cabbage-radish-broccoli stem sauerkraut I had been tending over he last two weeks, and a fantastic salad made by Chris. It was a great day. Pictures at the end.

We were working on a couple different tasks. We had already removed the sod from the area that will become the garden and now needed to empty several loads of compost there to mix in with the soil. The major project, however, was digging a big hole for a dry well, then moving the garden shed on top of said dry well so that the area where the shed was could become part of the garden, it being the sunny SW corner of the yard. Beth busied herself painting our old wood-frame couches to waterproof them- just in time- and kept me company while David went to load up on gravel and Dave, Eric, and Aaron went to Dave’s mill yard to pick out timbers to make the foundation of the shed. She and I came to two conclusions: that our respective men-folk were wonderful, and that we should hang out together without them more often.

But, back to the dry well- why did we need one? In conjunction with it’s lovely southwesterly slope, our lot is situated such that most of the rain water from our half of the block runs off the street and right between our and our neighbors’ houses (the Italians with the pizza oven who handed us fresh-baked bread over the fence during our work party. Rock.) Our street has no gutter and no storm water drain to prevent this, and when I wrote the city to inquire about possible solutions, I was informed that the city doesn’t have money to rebuild the street and we’d have to take care of it ourselves (which is about what I was expecting).

So, a dry well is essentially the opposite of a regular well- it is a hole filled with rocks or gravel that you channel water into so that it will seep slowly into the ground and disappear. Generally people build them as a way to draw rain water away from their foundations or to improve drainage in swampy low areas of their yard. Usually there is a gravel-lined trench (aka French drain) with or without a drainage pipe leading from the soggy area to the dry well, and the dry well itself may either be a gravel pit or an actual trash can-sized container with holes in it that is half-filled with rocks and then covered with soil and sod. The spaces between the pieces of gravel provide ample room for the water to collect and flow (unlike clay soil) and eventually the water will seep out of the dry well into the surrounding dirt, ideally keeping the whole yard well watered but not soggy.

For our dry well, we dug an 8×10 foot hole, one foot deep and a deeper, trash-can sized hole in the downhill corner. The 8×10 hole served as a level foundation on which to put the shed and the floor of this square hole was graded (magnificently by Dave and Aaron) toward the deeper hole. Amazingly, we hit sand at the bottom of the deep hole after three feet of clay-rich soil- I’m hoping that leading the rain water to this layer of sand will solve all our problems!! We lined the hole with landscape fabric- this prevents dirt from moving in and clogging the gravel- and filled the deep hole with big rocks and the rest with “drain gravel” from Pacific Topsoil. We needed more than we expected- 4 cubic yards was barely enough, plus a few wheelbarrows-full of rocks scavenged from the yard. We dug a short channel from the uphill side of the hole to capture the little stream that forms between our and our neighbors’ house when it rains, then noticed a couple days later that the downspout from our neighbors’ roof is only one foot away on the other side of the fence. We will ask if we can hook their downspout up to our dry well. With street runoff and roof runoff going into this gravel pit instead of the back corner of our yard, and because we have built raised beds, I’m hoping that next spring our SW corner will de-soggify quickly and our veggie garden plantings won’t be delayed. We shall see. If that corner is still swampy next year, we will talk to our two back fence neighbors down the hill (who also have swamp problems) and see if we can jointly dig a French drain (aka gravel trench) through the border of their properties to empty into the storm drain on their street. Except today I walked along their street and there was not a storm drain in sight. Huh.

I had the superb chance to observe our dry well in action (and failing miserably at first) this evening when I got home from work. It was raining quite hard and sure enough, water was racing down between the houses and surging out of the neighbor’s downspout. The backside of the shed/gravel pit quickly became a river, and I realized that the landscape fabric, though water permeable, couldn’t handle this much water at once and was keeping most of it out of the dry well. I dunked my arms into foot-deep water at the shed foundation and cut two holes in the fabric- one under the uphill corner at the base of the channel we had dug leading to the pit- I propped the fabric open with a hollowed yogurt container and the pooled water drained instantly- and one midway down the shed where the neighbor’s downspout stream was hitting- which also drained the stream instantly. Needless to say I felt like an action hero while doing this. Sadly, by this time the paths in the garden past the shed had already filled with water. I noticed that water was actually flowing out from under the shed on the downhill side as if the well had already filled and wasn’t draining quickly enough. I was a bit dismayed… but it was raining awfully hard. Were I to build this over again, I wouldn’t have lined the very bottom of the deep hole with landscape fabric, just the walls and floor of the bigger 8×10 hole. I don’t quite have a plan for limiting the amount of sediment that flows in at the entry points… but Aaron, a trained geologist, swears it will take a long time to clog that big gravel pit with sediment. Amazingly, 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the puddle in the gravel had disappeared- the water had drained. The true test will be whether the raised beds dry out quickly.

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