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Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The shed

This is a good month for clearing the potting shed for action.

Ours is the remnant of a particularly decrepit lean-to, which the previous owner constructed out of whatever was handy, and used mainly to store trash and to indulge, with the use of a perilously derelict woodstove, in melting lead for a lifetime's supply of sinkers and split shot. As I stood looking at this structure, which had helped by its presence to bring down the asking price on the property, the neighbor, a stout and cheery farm woman who had befriended us in our first week with a gift of raspberry starts, fetched up on the other side of the boundary fence.

"You are going to rip down that eyesore, aren't you?" she asked. "First thing?"

So I felt I had an obligation, but once inside, I found that my predecessor had used beams, taken up from the floors of some defunct lumbermill, each eight inches square and sixteen feet long, for framing the roof. I am no longer young, and the prospect of dismantling those massive rafters dismayed me. I immediately began to think of the "eyesore" as the "barn and potting shed," and within days began installing walls, windows, and doors. A coat of red fence stain on the barn boards of the walls, and cheery green trim on the window frames, produced a pleasing enough effect that my neighbor has never called me to account on our unspoken contract. At least, that's my interpretation!

One side of the building, about two-thirds, is given over to Beloved's ducks and her retired show rabbits. We put down straw bedding over the bare earth, and change it periodically; this becomes our favorite mulch and top dressing, as it is rich in duck and rabbit manure but not enough so to burn plants noticeably.

It is pleasant, every morning, to go hunting for eggs in the tiny barn. The ducks, Khaki Campbells, produce almost an egg a day each, which they never look at again, but they do like to build their communal nest in a different spot each night.

The other half of the building is the potting shed, which we also call the greenhouse, but that's stretching things a bit.

To construct this space, so necessary to the garden, I began by removing the south wall and framing in rafters for three sliding glass doors, which had been donated by a friend. These lean against the building and form a kind of large greenhouse window. The east wall, against the duck room, is for tools. Before I did anything else, I gathered the tools, old friends that had gardened with me on four sites in Oregon and one in Pennsylvania, and hung them along the weathered grey boards: two round-point shovels, one square-point, one d-ring spade, a garden fork, a hay fork, two toothed rakes, one mattock, two stirrup hoes, a pry bar, a splitting maul, a bow saw, machete, lopping shears.

A comforting sight, these, lined up, waiting for orders. Even in the dead of winter I sometimes go out to look at them and touch each one.

The floor was a matter of concern. My predecessor had laid out some of the precious beams directly on the soil and covered them with 1/2 inch plywood. Dry rot and carpenter ants had made of this area a serious ankle trap. I asked my oldest boy and his friend if they wanted exercise. With the pry bar and the maul, they made a joyful noise and large chunks of erstwhile flooring flew out the door for about half an hour.

I considered using the bare earth, but as I knew I would be watering plants inside, I looked about for something more suitable. Bricks were what I wanted, but used bricks go for a dollar apiece hereabouts. I mentioned this, in a woebegone manner, to a friend.

"Well, I might have just the thing. There is a dangerous chimney on the house I use for an office building, which would cost me a fortune to have taken down by masons. If you can do the job I'll pay you and you can keep the bricks."

I thought this was a godsend and took our pickup truck and a rented forty foot ladder to the site. This turned out to be, to my horror, a two-story house with a sixty-degree pitch. I'd need the whole length of the ladder to get at the thing -- forty feet doesn't sound like much but just try it sometime -- but the bricks, the bricks!

Greed overcame good sense, and there I was, a million miles above the earth it seemed to me, plucking bricks from midair (the mortar was completely shot) and tossing them at random over my shoulder into space. They made a lovely truckload, though, and with the aid of my nine-year-old daughter, the next day, I laid them in a herringbone pattern, just like the ones pictured in garden books, and they made exactly the length and width of the room.

In the west wall I installed wood-framed windows in a row at table height, then dragged a suitable "bench" from the garage and painted it green ( for good luck? Why do we insist on green potting benches?). Using roofing nails, I covered the top of the bench with linoleum. The bench had been a kitchen cabinet once, but had long since lost its doors and hinges. I installed it along the west wall beneath the windows, and filled its shelves with clay pots, green plastic pots of all sizes, and tomato cans. With the addition of a watering can, two trowels, and a couple of bags of potting soil, the shed was done!

I envisioned opening the door through the years, admiring the herringbone pattern of the bricks, the row of waiting tools, the sun shining in through the greenhouse window on ranks of flats bursting with lettuce, broccoli, chard...ahhh.

"Hello!" said Beloved. "I need to put the duck feed, the rabbit feed, and the geese's cob in here."

Excuse me? Three large-size garbage cans? But there's no arguing with fate. Soon other items, large and small, came marching in, like animals into the ark. Boxes, lengths of hose, "white buckets" (even the green ones are called "white"), old pillows (she uses these to kneel on while working in the earth), you name it....

So now, in midwinter, when it's as dark as an eclipse all day anyway, is the time to clean out. Find out which things can go in the garage instead. Find all the broken plastic pots and move them out. Sort and stack the ones that are left. Take the edged tools, one by one, to the garage to be wire-brushed, filed, oiled, and have their handles linseed-oiled. Slowly the shed will begin to look useful. Even some of the beautiful floor begins to appear. But I don't think I'll ever get rid of those huge trash cans. They have made themselves At Home.


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