Before we started
We are making progress on the front yard. We waited a long time for the HOA to approve everything, and once they did, we got started right away.
So far it’s been a lot of moving dirt.

The tree and bushes were chopped up and taken to the dump in our trailer. I think I may have shouted for joy. Those bushes were 5 or 6 feet deep and over 3 feet tall.

That tree is 10 years old–that gives you an idea of how poor the soil is here. (Note to Las Vegas readers: if you don’t replace the dirt, your trees and plants won’t grow much at all. I have seen 5 -year-old fruit trees that never got bigger than they were in the pot at the nursery, because they needed good dirt in which to grow).

I shoveled and raked up the rocks, and removed them with a wheelbarrow to neighbors who needed new rocks in the spots where the rocks had “disappeared” in their yards.

My husband dug for water and started running water lines.

The photo above shows our dirt and caliche. The pipe is dirty, but it gives you a good idea of the color of our dirt here. Caliche is like concrete; when I bought the fruit trees for the back yard, the cashier at the local nursery asked me if I had already jackhammered my holes. She was not kidding. (We actually did hire someone to jackhammer a hole at the last house for a tree; it took 2 guys all day to dig that way; one with the jackhammer and one with the shovel. That is how hard the ground is here. Caliche is those rocks that you see. My brother-in-law had to dynamite to dig a basement, and it was so difficult that he only ended up building a basement under half of his house. Basements are very rare here.)
The good dirt on top is what good dirt should look like–black. Our dirt here is very alkaline as well; both the water and the dirt have an average ph of 8.2.
This is how the front has looked for weeks, except that the pile of junk on the left is twice as big now, since we ripped out the concrete walkway. You can see the tree root in that pile (it looks like a root-bound potted plant). That dirt is what came out of our front yard, and we’ve taken out more since then–and there is much more left to still take out. Thankfully, we’ve been able to borrow a friend’s backhoe to do most of the digging. Also thankfully, my brother-in-law knows how to run a backhoe, so he has been the one using the backhoe.
However, my husband has been digging a lot of places for water and power lines by hand.

This was day one of starting to set forms for the concrete footers that go under the walls. We were hoping to avoid doing the upper wall, but if you look, you can see the concrete footer from the block wall that is our neighbor’s house (it’s his back wall; I think we’re the only one in the neighborhood to have a block wall that divides the properties in our front yard. The HOA was really confused when I said there was a wall already in our front yard, until they came out and saw it). Our neighbor’s house sits higher than ours, but the concrete footer slopes down. Because the footer is so high, once we dug, it was obvious that we needed a second wall.
This is a better shot of the footer that I took after we built the wall. You can see both original concrete footers, as well as where the previous dirt line in my front yard sloped down. All of my backyard has this, since these houses were built with concrete walls around each backyard. This is why I have stakes and wire mesh out about a foot from my walls in the backyard–I cannot get any closer to the wall.

This is the first day of setting forms from the other direction. Notice the water box in the front yard. Our neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, so it sticks into our yard.
The day they came to pour concrete I had to cancel school. The children were too excited to do anything besides watch. The men are pouring the footers for the wall. My husband could have leveled the ground for us to set the blocks, but this was much easier for us and made it much faster to build the wall.
They also poured a 2 foot wide “sidewalk” at the front of the property. Technically it’s not a sidewalk (which must be 3 feet wide by law). We wanted it so that when you park in front of our house, you have somewhere to step out (and so that you don’t open your door into the plants). Plus, we wanted a sidewalk to the mailbox, which is right past the wall on the right. Also, when I need to work in the bed that is between the wall and the sidewalk, having a sidewalk means I don’t have to kneel in the street, which is a huge deal to me! We textured the sidewalk to look like slate. That big blue mat you see is what they use to texture concrete (that’s the backside). They spray it with a releasing spray so that it doesn’t stick to the concrete. The spray smells just like bubble gum.
We also had them pour concrete by the front door (we took out the existing concrete there, and the center of the new concrete is also textured) and we had them pour a small amount of concrete in the back as well, between the existing patio and the raised bed (which we moved down earlier this year). The raised bed isn’t very raised now! We took a lot of dirt from the pile in the driveway and put in on the side of the house to help level it for that concrete, and for future concrete that will be poured there some year in the future. Thanks to more digging, the pile in the front yard is just as big as it was before.
Once the concrete was set we could build the walls a few days later. My husband cut the block for the straight edges and the curved pieces, and I laid most of the walls (it took that long to cut the pieces that needed to be cut). We rented a cutter for the day from Home Depot.
 The bricks stack together with a back lipped edge. We didn’t have to use anything to hold them, but we decided to use Liquid Nails (which is a glue; the store recommended it). Winter and Cyrus put down the glue while I laid bricks. I call them bricks, but they are not actually bricks; they are not rectangular, either. They are tapered on either side.
My husband laid the capstone.
We decided to curve the upper wall, since the HOA rules state no walls can be over 24″ tall, and this way neither wall is touching (so it isn’t a higher wall). Not counting the footer, the wall is 21″ high.
You can see the drain pipe that my husband put through the wall. 
Silghtly covered in this picture by the black mixing tub is a block in the wall that has three holes in it, to allow for drainage from the back yard. The two or three days a year where it rains hard enough to have water flowing, it will come from the backyard (the concrete on that side of the house slopes into that drain area) and into my flower bed. My husband will pour a little concrete drain on top of the concrete wall footer to connect the hole and the drainpipe.
Since my friend gave us her old garden dirt from her garden yesterday (looking at the pile, she actually saved me about $600 in dirt), we filled the upper planter with it today. We also dug out between the sidewalk and the wall, down a foot deep in the middle, which is where I plan on planting bulbs (many of which need to planted 8″ deep, plus they need room for roots). We put the rest of the dirt from her in that planter and it almost fills it up as well (I could use about 8 cubic feet more of dirt, so I will probably add manure in there with the dirt from her). The dirt covers the concrete so that you will just see the wall. It will be that way on the upper wall as well when we are done.
Also in this picture, you can see where my husband ran electrical for one of the two boxes that will be in that corner, for valves. The pipe sticking up in the front planter by the drainpipe is where we will attach the thick black flex line, and then we will plug our smaller 1/4″ drip line into that.
In the upper planter I will be planting 3 dwarf Meyer lemon trees, and growing them as a hedge. They will be green year-round. They should grow to the top of the wall and possibly a little taller.
In the lower planter (which is only 2 1/2 feet wide), I will have 4 carpet rose bushes (they are low growing nad bloom often). I will plant zinnias in the back and vincas along the front edge) in the summer. In the fall I will plant bulbs in the middle of the planter: two heights of Iris (bloom in April), Oriental Lilies (bloom in May/June) and Paperwhites (they will bloom in November and December outside here). I will also plant seeds for white Larkspur, which are fall planted here but bloom in May. I will sow some German Chamomile seeds in there as well, which also bloom in May. During spring, summer, and fall, the planter will have hundreds of flowers.
The vincas will last until frost (sometime between mid-November and mid-December). I will be replacing them with white violas, which bloom here October through April/May. I am not sure if I’ll try to start some indoors or if I’ll just direct seed them and wait a little longer to have flowers. Most likely I will direct seed them after the vincas die.
The zinnias will also bloom until frost.
The larkspur, zinnias, chamomile, vincas, and violas may all reseed themselves (some will do so more readily than others, and I can collect seeds from the larkspur and the zinnias fairly simply). The bulbs should return each year (though I don’t know for sure yet if the taller Iris will in this climate, but the others will for sure).
You can see my original plans here. (Note that I have changed what I am planting in the lower planter from that drawing).
The next thing to do is to get rid of the huge pile of dirt in my driveway. Fortunately, one of neighbors across the street wants it, so we can dump it over there in his backyard (his gate is wide enough for us to drive the backhoe over). Then we can start leveling so that forms can be set to pour more concrete in the front yard. After that it will be digging again, in the beds behind the wall and on either side of the walkway up to the front door, and putting in good dirt after that.
One of my neighbors came up to me when she was getting her mail today and told me that she thinks my wall is pretty. I told her it will be even prettier when there are 500 flowers blooming in front of it. I think she thought I was exaggerrating. . . .
The cutest thing today was when Elsa (my 3-year-old) came out to help. She put on a bicyle helmet (I don’t know why; maybe as a hardhat?) and brought out a child-sized trowel, so that she could dig, too. I gave her a spot so that she could help us move the good dirt from the pile in the street to the planter. She smiled the whole time.

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  1. That’s a big area for weeds! You must have some good dirt there! Our backyard mostly looked like the front yard does now when we moved in; very few weeds with just white dirt and a slope on on side (to that higher concrete wall). The lack of rain, alkaline, rock hard dirt, and intense heat make for a lack of weeds, unless you bring in new dirt and water it.

  2. Wowie! That is impressive. I can’t believe I have finally found someone with worse dirt than us. Ours is all rocks held together with a thin layer of dirt. We ended up throwing in the towel and building raised beds. Some of our neighbors have built nice rock features with all the skillion-billion-zillion rocks. I am very excited for you! We are finally ripping out our dreary hedge and putting in a concrete retaining wall. We are planning on a fence too, but we want to save up some more money first. So retaining wall now and maybe the fence in August. You are so fortunate to have fruit trees!

  3. It is coming together so nicely Brandy. Your story of how hard the dirt is brought me back to living in AZ and the jackhammering. The walls are gorgeous. I can’t wait to see the finished project.

  4. I am so excited for you and your progress! We had a large rotting Maple pulled out of our backyard last month and the tree coming down gave us 75% of our yard back (in sunlight) for gardening. I put 5 fruit trees in already and am in the process of planting the berries(blue, rasp, black, straw). We are in Wisconsin. I did plant a Sugar Maple in the front yard to block sunlight in 10-15 yrs.

  5. Your wall looks great! I’m surprised you don’t offer your services to others for a fee. I think you do a beautiful job planning and implementing your landscape ideas. I like how you involved the kids in the brick laying, nice job!

  6. What a nice neighbor to give you the good dirt! I think that is wonderful that you found a way for Elsa to help move it. Curving the wall sounds like a brilliant way to get around the HOA height restriction. Congratulations on the progress thus far.

  7. Oh my, what vision you two have! This post made me appreciate the beautiful dirt we have in the plateau we live in. I would say this will be a wonderful example that “if we can make a garden here, you can make a garden where you are!” I am looking forward to seeing the progress! May the Lord bless you as you make a garden in the desert.

  8. That was all Elsa’s idea 🙂 She was smiling the whole time because she wanted to help and she got to play in the dirt. I’m going to make sure she gets to help move some more dirt the next time we have dirt.

  9. Remember this is England and buddleiahs grow out of brick walls!!!! It is your tenacity I find amazing but gardeners will always find a way. Two stories come to mind, the first was the light house keepers who actually rowed barrow loads of earth out to their lighthouse every time they change shift, using the time on land to grow seedlings. Heaven only knows how the poor plantlets survived the winds and storms but the lighthouse keepers had fresh veggies. Think I would have taken the easy option and stuck to sprouting seeds. Second story was the old yokel leaning on his garden gate and the local vicar passed. ‘What a marvellous job the Lord and you have made of your garden’. ‘Ah’ says the yokel ‘you should have seen it when the Lord had it on its own’. I think it is about time I went out and gave the Lord a helping hand! Anona

  10. Love it! That wall makes me want one! I have a huge front yard and have felt like I could really not do anything with it. I am going to have to put more thought into it. I personally do not have a green thumb, though, and consider it a minor miracle when my plants don’t die. I am however persistant and I keep trying! You inspire me with your bad dirt and your amazing results! We have a lot of sand and limestone, the good black dirt got scraped off and sold when they made our subdivision.

  11. Sand is a good thing. The dirt we will be buying is half sand. Add compost/humus mix and some manure to your sand and you can have great results.I never had a green thumb. I took a bunch of gardening classes after we moved here, and then I read and worked and learned as I went. In fact, I just learned something new this week.I still stuggle with container gardening, but I think that’s the extreme heat and the need to water by hand every single day that gives me trouble there.

  12. Also, we brought in new dirt in the backyard the same as we are doing in the front yard. All of my planters in the backyard are dug down two feet deep (with a backhoe) and we replaced the dirt. It helps if you can add some good dirt each year; it makes a huge difference.

  13. I am both impressed and inspired! Goodness, on Saturday we tilled a little garden plot at church where the soil is clay, and it was hard, but nothing compared to what you’re attending to! I love the walls, the color they bring, and how they will help your white flowers ‘pop’! Your family is an inspiration, working together on this. Thank you so much for sharing it!

  14. Shannon, that’s just what they did when they put in subdivisions up north from where I live. Our soil is naturally on the sandy side, but I do think that’s easier to amend than clay. If you are allowed to have a bunny where you live (and you aren’t allergic or anything) they will make you some fantastic soil amendment. If not, look places like freecycle and/or craigslist for aged horse manure, rabbit manure, alpaca, etc. If you mix those into your sandy soil they will help hold moisture and they’ll provide nutrients. That’s what we have done…plus, I mulch like you wouldn’t believe, which helps to acidify the soil over time and keeps the moisture more even. I hope some of this is helpful for you. :)-Laura at TenThingsFarm

  15. Brandy, I have been trying to get my hsuband to understand something you said above for years….we live in a very dry part of CO and I plant all my garden rows in little trenches. Then, I water the trenches, and only the trenches – not the mulched area between the rows. I can always tell when my husband has ‘helped’ me, because he waters the entire garden, and I get weeds in all the walkways. If they remain unwatered, no weeds. 🙂

  16. Soil sulphur will acidify soil; our nursery sells it in 20 pound bags.If you get manure from a farmer, make SURE it is aged, or don’t use it! I made that mistake in the backyard; it wasn’t aged ENOUGH (though they said it was), and it killed off half my trees and bushes, plus I am still battling the weed seeds. When we used sterile manure and sterile planting mix at the last house, we had not problems with the types of weeds I encounter now (the grasses that are so hard to remove).

  17. I loved the picture of the kids watching. And I enjoyed hearing that Elsa helped, that is awesome. Please post pictures of the finished product. I thought your vision was great, I didn’t imagine the beautiful brick wall you built. I am from the midwest and I must not get out much because I would never call that white stuff soil. We have dark rich soil here.

  18. Wow, what a big project! It looks amazing so far, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out as you continue to make progress. I love the bit about the 500 flowers. My neighbors didn’t believe me either when I started planting! But I’ve jammed as many flowers as I can get into my space (except where I have fruit/veg growing). I just love it. I love that your little Elsa helped with her bike helmet hard had! Sounds just like something my little one would do. Looking forward to seeing more! ~Angela~

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