Of Mice and Mountain Men

Garden Project 2016 — Part 5

Of Mice and Mountain MenLoad of 25 timbers

I bought another batch of timbers and got some more work done on my garden project.

Inside wall leveled

My first task this time was to level out the inside wall of the plot (next to the barn) and build it up to meet the low timber on the front wall (at the corner of the barn). This also meant going around the back corner and over to the stepped timber on the back wall at that level. From here on, I’ll be laying mostly full timbers and a couple of half timbers along the inside wall and the back.

Inside wall complete liner

I laid in two more rows, pulling up and stapling the liner before I screwed down the top timbers. This is as high as I’m going on this end.

Inside-back corner complete

That also completes the inside-back corner. I could run the wall up the slope with many small steps to match the slope of the land, but because I’m going to mount fence panels on top of the walls to keep dogs, rabbits, and buffalo out of the garden, I need longer level areas and taller steps: each step will be 3 or 4 timbers high, and I need to lay them out according to the slope. But I’m almost out of timbers again, so I’ll start on the front side. I’ll get more done there with what I have left.

Blondie not happy garden improvements

I have my first step established and my gate posts installed. Blondie Bear is not at all happy with my “improvements.” They just get in her way!

The fence panels will be made by re-purposing PVC fence boxes to make single (about 4 feet) and double (about 8 feet) fence panels that will sit inside each step. The fence box parts were not cemented together, so I’ll just remove the mesh and pull the frames apart. I can cut the tubing down if I need to make custom-length panels for certain spots, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.

I can work on those while I await my next paycheck and the ability to buy more timbers.

I will say that I am displeased with the timbers from our big-box, home-improvement store because of the lack of uniformity in timber size.

Mismatched timbers

The first few timbers I pulled off of this batch are 1/2” wider and 1/8” taller that the timbers I bought last time. I thought it was a problem of buying from two different batches. But as I worked, I found that some of the timbers in this batch are closer to the size I got last time. So I started paying closer attention and doing my best to minimize the obvious problems this is going to cause. This discovery did make me feel better; I was thinking I should have bought all the timbers I’d need at one time, even if it meant using credit to do it. Then they would all match. But that is not the case.

I miss the hometown lumber yard that got put out of business by “big box.” I never had this trouble with timbers from them.

Next time I'll finish up this series with a look at completed steps and fence panels.

Garden Project 2016 — Part 4

Of Mice and Mountain MenPreviously we have covered layout, squaring, trenching, and ground pins in this garden project of mine. Now, let's look more at the arrangement of the timbers themselves and the joinery.

Staggering Joints

Staggered Joints

Joints, where the end of one timber butts up against the end of another, are weak points. You want to stagger these so that the joints in one row do not fall too close to joints in the row just above or below it.

Longer is Better

Make use of long pieces of timber — they're stronger than many short pieces. In the beginning, as I stair-step up the slopes, short pieces cannot be avoided. But I will want to transition to longer pieces as soon as possible. Cut-offs can be used by placing them between longer pieces.

Lock the Corners

Locked corners

Be sure you alternate the overlap at corners to lock the timbers securely together (as pictured above).

Mark Your Fasteners

Marking screws

When you drive a screw or spike into a timber, use a construction pencil (with a wide, flat, sturdy point, as opposed to the delicate conical point of a standard pencil) to make an obvious mark on the outside of the timber where the fastener is. This will make it easy to avoid driving one fastener in on top of another. At the corners, mark both the side and the end to give yourself a clearer vision of where it is. Pencil is good because it washes off with the rain, so you don’t deface your pretty wall.

Pay particular attention to fastener placement at corners, or they will hit the fastener in the timber below it.


If you will have long, high walls, you will want to consider adding buttresses to help keep the dirt on the inside from pushing (bowing) the wall out at the top. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to use a post hole digger to drill a hole 18 inches deep beside the wall. Then, concrete a 4x4 into the hole so that it supports the upper part of the wall. This works well for 3- to 4-foot-high walls. Anything higher than 4 feet that will be holding back dirt will need a more aggressive approach, like anchored tie-backs or external cantilevered buttresses.

Cantilevered Buttress concrete

Stepping and Filling

I started at the low corner and worked in two directions — along the barn and along the back wall. When I got to the outside-back corner, I had to start filling in and building up in order to go around the corner and work up the outside-end wall.

Back Wall - End Wall

I used a large number of my initial 40 timbers just building height to accommodate this corner.

High corner_Ground timbers in

The final side to be dug in was the front, from the corner of the barn to the highest corner. Now that these are all in, there will be no more trenching or rebar pinning, so I can put those tools away.

Where From Here?

My goal for the initial 40 timbers I bought was to get all the ground timbers in and all corners locked together with at least one additional run. I have accomplished that with one timber to spare.

The next step will be to figure out where the permanent steps will be in the wall.

I do not think it practical to simply build up all walls until they are level along the tops of the walls. If I do that, the high corner will be 6 inches high, the front corner at the barn will be 39 inches high (the corner diagonally opposite will be similar), and the lowest corner (behind the barn) will be between 5 and 6 feet high! That would take a lot of timbers, and a lot of dirt to fill it up level.

A better solution might be to step it down to retain a slope, but a much less drastic slope.

A long wall might look like this:


This is a simplified version, but the idea is to make three or four major steps rather than seventeen little steps. The little steps would be fine, except that I want to attach fence panels atop the timbers to keep rabbits and dogs out of my vegetable patch. A few steps of three layers would make that possible.

That’s enough for this round. See you next time when I begin filling in these stair steps!

Garden Project 2016 — Part 3

Of Mice and Mountain MenPreviously, we laid out where the retainer walls will be and squared up the corners. Now we’re ready to start digging for the ground-level timbers.


But first: how will we fasten things in place?

Beveled pin end

I’m using two types of fasteners. One is 1/2” rebar that I cut into 12-inch lengths. I bevel one end a bit, just to help it pass through the hole in the timber (drilled with a 1/2” spade bit) without snagging on the wood. Unless your ground is hard as rock there is no need to grind the pin to a point. Use these pins to fasten the timber in place on the ground.

HeadLok Screws

For timber-to-timber fastening, I’m using HeadLok timber framing screws. You can use a variety of fasteners, from spikes to lag bolts to deck screws. I researched them all. I’ve used decking screws before and found that they are a bit light-weight for this use. And expensive. I’ve used lag bolts and found they hold forever, but the heads have to be counter-bored into the timbers as well as drilling a pilot hole. Extra work, and the bolts are expensive. Timber spikes are the cheapest, but the timbers will jump around as you drive the spikes in, ruining your careful placement to get a good, plumb wall.

I went with the timber framing screws and am happy I did. The cost is more than spikes, but less than lag bolts (in large boxes), and they are rated to replace a 3/8” lag bolt. They are heavy enough to hold well and coated to resist rust for a long time (manufacturer claims “lifetime of the project”). There are several brands out there, this one is what our local home improvement store carries. My 20-volt cordless drill will drive a dozen or so screws before the charge wears down. A corded drill will run all day if I string a power cord out there.


Trenching 2

Starting at the lowest corner, I use a square-nose spade to cut the sod along the inner edge of the orange paint line. I cut another line 5 inches inside of that, then dig out the sod between the cuts. These sod-chunks get moved as plugs to the area where I’ve removed and filled in the small, raised bed boxes.

Then I use a pick axe to cut the trench deeper as the ground slopes up.

Leveling Trench 2

I use a 4-foot spirit level to check my progress and to keep the trench flat and level until the depth is equal to the height of a landscape timber. Measure the length of timber you need, cut it, and lay it in the trench.


Low Corner Hegelkulture

I’m using 6 mil black plastic as a liner inside the wall. My theory is that this will help keep the pressure treatment in the lumber from leeching into the soil and will extend the life of the timbers. By putting the plastic in the trench so it is under the timbers — and up the outside to just above ground level — as well as lining the inside, it should help keep the enzymes (and insects) in the soil from rotting the wood. The pressure treatment will protect the wood for a time. I’m hoping that by lining the walls, this construct will last what is left of my lifetime — or, at least, what is left of it that I will be able to actively garden.


With the liner positioned and a hole bored through the timber about three inches back from the end, check one last time to be sure the timber is level end-to-end and side-to-side, and check that it’s sitting with its edge along the edge of the orange lay-out paint. Then use a small sledgehammer to drive the pin through the timber and into the ground.

The very first timbers (one each direction from the corner) will get pinned at both ends. From then on (at least on this job), only the far end will get pinned; the other will get screwed to the top of the previous timber as they stair-step their way up the slope.

Join me again next time and we’ll get more into arranging the timbers and joining them.

Garden Project 2016 – Part 2

Of Mice and Mountain MenIn Part 1, I discussed the need for revamping my garden plan. Now let's get started on laying out the perimeter of the new wall.

Being a former furniture maker, I’m fussy. While I could just toss some timbers on the ground and fiddle with them until the parallel sides are about equal, I’d like to get the corners as close to square as I can. Being on a slope (and having a garden in the middle, including trellises and fence boxes), running a tape measure across the diagonals isn’t going to work. But geometry can be fun. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Being a Square

My garden bed is to be 20 feet by 28 feet. That 2-1/2 (eight foot) landscape timbers wide by 3-1/2 landscape timbers long. I lay timbers out on the ground using those proportions and eye-ball them into reasonably straight lines.

Lay-out Front

The storage barn that is next to the vegetable bed is square. I used that to help. I nailed a string to the trim on the far side of the front of the barn and ran it out to the high corner. I started with the string angled out a bit and brought it in slowly, until it just touched the trim on the near side of the barn. I staked the string and used that to line up the first side of timbers, forming a straight line from the front of the barn. I measured out the 28 feet from the barn and marked that — establishing the location of the first corner.

Squaring with 3-4-5 method

With the timbers for the adjacent side laid roughly in place, I used the 3-4-5 method to square that corner. Find the center line of the two timbers that form the corner (edges could be used on square timbers, but these have rounded faces). Mark the point where the two center lines cross (center of corner). Measure out 3 feet in one direction and mark it on the center line. Measure out 4 feet in the other direction and mark it on the center line. Use a tape measure to measure diagonally from the 3 foot mark to the 4 foot mark. Making sure that the timber on the established straight line does not move, move the far end of the other timber in or out until the mark on that timber touches the 5 foot mark on the tape. Fasten that timber in place, and the corner is now square.

3-4-5 works well with eight-foot timbers. For longer pieces and distances, 6-8-10 works, too.

Now fasten the string to the center point of the corner and roll it out to the next corner. Tension the string and swing it until it lines up perfectly with the center line atop the timber you just squared. Stake the string a little beyond the expected corner location, then use it to line up the center lines of the remaining timbers on that side.

Lay-Out Back

Next I laid timbers in along the side of the barn to the low corner (behind the barn). I repeated the 3-4-5 squaring process on this corner. Once the two diagonally opposed corners of a shape are square (and all the sides are straight), the shape is square.

Once all the timbers were in place, I used a can of orange marker paint to paint a line along the outside of the timbers. I’ll turn the timbers around so that the paint on them is inside as I build the walls.

Now it’s time to get digging. But I’ve reached my word limit, so I’ll pick this up again next time.

Garden Project 2016 — Part 1

Of Mice and Mountain MenI have another major garden project underway now that the growing season is wrapping up. Here’s what I’m doing.

Garden_Lower 10c
The Lower 10

Starting four years ago I began digging-in a whole mess of 4x4 raised bed boxes. I added some each year, and had 21 at the beginning of this year. I built three sections in my garden: The Lower 10, The Middle 10, and the Berry House. I did this because I live on a mountainside, and it seemed that digging these boxes into the slope would give me garden space that resisted being washed away with every rain. And that much of it worked. I was also enamored of the square-foot gardening method. That part didn’t work so well.

I made the boxes of untreated lumber because I didn’t want the P.T. stuff in my food. So they rotted after a few years, especially the ones up high where the rain water hits them hardest as it rolls down the slope. One of my foster dogs developed a penchant for ripping up rotted wood, so any boxes that were pretending to be hanging on got demolished last month.

Garden_Middle 10b
The Middle 10

I’m removing the Middle 10 and restoring lawn — not because I’m fond of grass, but because it keeps the soil from going AWOL. When the other boxes of the Middle 10 are done growing things, I’ll take them out too and plant a row of small fruit trees.

Removing old Box

I’m removing what’s left of the rotted wood, digging out and moving the garden soil, and pulling up the landscape fabric. Then I fill in the hole with ordinary dirt (I have a pile) and a little of the garden soil on top. Then I move in grass from where I’m digging it out down below.

Lay-out Front
Old boxes removed

What’s happening with The Lower 10 is more complicated.

The Lower 10 is getting expanded and becoming The Vegetable Garden. There will be the Veg Garden, Fruit Tree Row, and The Berry House at the top. The Lower 10 is the flattest spot on our property.

Lay-Out Back

Still, the lowest corner (left, back) is about 6 feet below the high corner (right) and I don’t think I want to try to build a wall that high out of landscape timbers.

I’ll step the wall up the slope to keep the low corner 4 feet or so high. That will leave a slight slope to the garden plot, but not bad.

Then I will go back to traditional in-ground gardening methods and abandon the raised bed boxes all together.

I can reuse the PVC tubing made into fence boxes by reorganizing the parts to form a perimeter fence fastened atop the landscape timber wall. That will keep the bunnies and (most of) the dogs out of my veggie patch. What’s left will become trellises for use in the garden.

Once I have a good start on the wall going, I need to dig out all the landscape fabric in the vegetable garden. It was great for keeping weeds and grass out, but also does not let veggie roots grow down into the soil below. That makes for stumpy carrots, green potatoes, and thirsty plants that would normally seek water deeper in the soil. Hopefully the grass has been thoroughly discouraged now and it won’t be a problem in the future. (Yeah, right!)

Low Corner Hegelkulture

All the rotted wood from the original boxes is getting tossed into the bottom of the deep corner (on top of a double layer of cardboard to smother out grass in the new areas) to become a form of Hugelkultur.

It’s kind of depressing spending so much time and effort undoing all the time and effort I put in to build and dig in these small boxes, but that just didn’t work out ... the plans of mice and men. Those new-fangled flibbity-tufts held much promise, but did not deliver. Time to go back to time-tested methods. So instead of a bunch of little boxes, I’ll build one BIG box and use traditional gardening in that.

Join me next time and I’ll get into layout and getting started.

Mater Munchies and Apple Leather

Of Mice and Mountain Men




Canned foods

For me, late summer means that most of the garden is winding down, but the cherry tomatoes are just hitting their stride and the fruit trees are ready for harvest. This bounty is great, but preserving the excess can be a challenge.

Cherry tomato vines produce prolifically once they get going. We'll eat them as fast as we can, but the vines always get ahead of us and we start handing excess off to friends and neighbors. At least, those friends and neighbors who don't grow cherry tomatoes themselves.

Cherry tomatoes do not can or freeze well (too much goop, not enough meat), so how does one preserve the excess? I like to make "Mater Munchies" out of them. Slice each tomato in half along the “equator” and place skin-side down on a dehydrator tray. Sprinkle liberally with garlic salt and dehydrate. They don't have to be hard as a rock, but they can't be moist at all. Perfection is when they get crisp. Store the dried tomatoes in a glass jar with a tight lid, and use them as a snack when you want something sweet and salty to nibble on.

I have apple, pear, and peach trees. The peach tree just sprang up years ago, and we let it grow. It's big now and puts on a heavy crop most years, but they almost always rot before they're ripe. Maybe the ground is too wet (it is near a spring), or maybe it doesn't get enough sun. I'm not sure, but we seldom have excess peaches. If we get any at all, it's just a few, and we eat those. Our pears are (I think) Seneca pears, and are too hard and gritty to be used as “eating pears,” fresh or dried. These and the apple tree were planted by our predecessors who preferred cooking with fruit rather than eating fresh fruit.

The apples are okay as eating apples, but not the best. Far better suited to pies and apple sauce.

I don't douse the fruit with insecticide, so the apples tend to come in pretty ugly. They can be cleaned up and made into sauce, but a single, small tree doesn't produce enough apples to to make much sauce. A couple of jars, maybe. But I can cut around the ugly spots and slice them up for apple leather. Dehydrating them to a leathery state concentrates the sugars, making for a sweet, chewy snack that is almost as satisfying as candy — and much better for you.

Again, seal them up in a jar (vacuum pack some for longer storage), and you'll have a tasty treat to enjoy through the winter and into spring that needs no refrigeration.

Any tree-fruit that you grow can be dehydrated and made to last for months. These can be eaten as dried fruits or rehydrated by soaking in water for use in pies and tarts.

Even an inexpensive dehydrator can serve to help you preserve excess food and make special treats that you and your family will enjoy all winter long.

LuluBelle Dragonslayer

Of Mice and Mountain MenIt is mid-afternoon on a warm Tennessee day. Blondie and Cochise are snoozing in the house with me, Lulu is out wandering the yard. Suddenly, Lulu fires up her ALARM! bark.


Lulu Belle 

Anyone with dogs knows there are different barks for different things. There is the “I see you over there, cat” bark, the “there are clouds in the sky” bark, there is the “it's going to rain, let me in” bark, the conversational bark, and there is the “something is terribly wrong, everyone get out here” bark. That's the one Lulu is employing.

Jasper (in his pen) joins in immediately. Cochise picks it up next. Blondie runs around the house huffing and looking out windows for a bit; she's not an alarmist, she wants to know WHY she's panicking before she does. When she joins in, both she and Cochise run to the back door to be let out to join the battle. Whatever that battle is.

I, too, am going from window to window to see if I can see what is upsetting Lulu to this extent. This is not their "UPS Truck" bark, nor is it their "vagrant dog" bark. This is their “emergency, come quick” bark. Something rarely employed.

The last time Cochise used it left me wondering about his definition of emergency, but he was adamant that I come see, leading me to the scene, stopping occasionally to see that I was still right behind him. He led me to my Mom's house. The outcome was odd, but it proved he can do it.

Seeing no reason not to let them out, I open the door. They bolt through and race off … and I follow them at a somewhat slower pace.

Lulu started out on the west side of our fenced yard, barking out toward the other side of the fence. That shifted to barking at my berry house, about 10 feet inside the fence. When the rest of us get there, she is barking at the ground on the east end of the berry house. By now, I have a suspicion of what to be looking for, and I didn't like it.

Blondie Bear and Lulu-Belle tag team the horrible beast, while big, brave Guardian of the Realm Cochise barks from a safe distance. I do not blame him. In fact, I'm glad. He tangled with a copperhead once, and that encounter meant a day in the doggie hospital and left him in severe pain and disfigured for weeks. He's still got a piece of his tongue missing as a reminder of what vipers will do to a foolish dog.

This one is just a black snake. No threat to them, or me. In fact, they are beneficial in many ways. Creepy, but beneficial. I try to corral the girls and get them to allow the slithery invader to go on its way. They are having none of that. Especially Lulu, who intensifies her attack when I try to draw her away. I think she's being protective of me because I am getting in close with her.

Then I see that the snake has a serious problem:

Try as it might, that snake isn't going anywhere; not for a long while – and I doubted it had a long while to invest. If I can get the dogs quelled and away I could try snipping the bird mesh to free this lawn dragon. That may not help: it will still be banded by the bit it would be left wearing.

While I contemplated this for a few nano-seconds, Lulu, not to be denied her prize, takes matters into her own paws. She rips the poultry mesh (installed to keep rabbits out of the berry house) away from the post and begins grabbing at the snakes tail. It strikes at her repeatedly. Lulu dodges and lunges. She gets a good hold on the tail and rips the serpent from its bindings, tearing a large patch of scales from it's side in the process, then “flaps” the squirmy prize to death.

I feel bad that I failed to save the thing.

Once it is dead, Lulu proudly stands over her prize. Blondie comes in to sniff at it, but, now that it no longer moves, there is no sport in it. I come with the pooper-claw and bucket to snatch away the 4-foot snake before they decide to eat it. That does not seem appealing to them at the moment, but I don't want to take any chances.

Cochise has already moved on. He's down on the far corner barking out through the fencing. I suspect he sees nothing at all but is putting on a good show, shouting, “Let THAT be a lesson to all dragons: stay out of our yard or this will happen to YOU, too!”

Then he scratches mightily at the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust to punctuate the threat.

Big, brave dog!