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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Downward March

By Jim Bishop.

This is a continuation of last May’s article about challenges creating a garden in our new home in Mission Hills.

In May’s article, I talked about creating the first block steps and retaining walls on our hillside. As we slowly worked our way down the hill, I was beginning to realize that to create a garden on a steep slope that anyone would visit; we would need landings, seating areas and some sort of pathway making a loop back up the hill.

Laying step and rocks from under the house for a dry creekbed

The obvious place for a return set of stairs was the slope behind the pool wall. However, the slope there was very steep and I couldn’t figure out how to approach it. Fate stepped in. When we remodeled the house we dug out the area under the upstairs kitchen and dining room for a new master bathroom. There were doors from outside and the closet into this area. The dirt came up about 5 feet high with some very flimsy footings sitting on top of the dirt that held up the house. The plan was to remove the dirt and hide a large footing in a wall that would hold the weight of the house. Since this would create a room that was half underground there would also be a new French drain to handle any water that seeped out the uphill side. Scott set about using a rented electric jackhammer to dig out the dirt. Though weren’t aware of any decomposed granite on our lot we were surprised the dirt was undisturbed DG with lots of round cobblestones of different sizes mixed in. We piled the rocks outside the backdoor and threw the dirt over the large 15 foot high wall at the east end of the pool.

Scott jackhammering out rocks from under the house for a new bathroom

When it came time to connect the new sinks, shower, toilet and laundry room to the sewer line, the contractor informed us that the sewer line was on the other side of the house and would require a pump behind the master bedroom to get to the sewer line. We really hated this idea mainly because it would likely be very noisy in the bedroom. However, behind the bedroom was also a room with the heater and water heater for the house. I had noted that there was a fairly new looking drain under the water heater that I believed terminated in the matching pipe 2 stores below the house. So the plumber ran water down it to make sure and then pressurized it for several days to see if it had any leaks. Sure enough it was in great shape and could be used to connect the sewer except for one problem; it was on the wrong side of the property. So to reach the sewer line, he dug a diagonal trench across the hill and tied into the very old cast-iron sewer line. Once the trench was covered, we had the first sort of walkable pathway that cut across the hill. Within days we were busy buying more blocks and creating a new stairway next to the new sewer line. To stabilize the steep slope, some very large retaining walls were built above the new pathway. Halfway down the pathway I was able to put a large circular landing.

Second set of steps on top of the old sewer line

Jim building retaining walls

Someone had previously reroofed the house and thrown the broken roof tile down the hill. I used the tile and other debris on the hill to create a star-shaped mosaic pattern on top of the landing. As we dug into the hill we found bricks, concrete blocks and big chunks of broken up concrete that looked like it must have been a patio. Apparently the very cracked decking around the pool had already been replaced at least once. We also found several broken concrete fruit baskets. I used these to create rubble retaining walls. Most are now hidden from view by plants.

Completed walls before planting and adding paths and steps

I used some of the dirt that came from under the house to shore up the small pathway that ran behind the pool wall. This created a way to get from the new steps and back to the gate into the pool area. I also used some of the dirt to create a small patio just outside the pool area that serves as landing for several of the walkways and steps going up and down the hill. To the west side of it, I dug a 2 foot trench and lined it with chicken wire and landscape cloth and used the rocks from under the house to create a dry creekbed down the hill. I was so excited, this project tripled the available planting area of the garden.

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