Monthly Archives: August 2015

Brick by Brick, Plant by Plant

 Two years ago a building in York, on Philadelphia Street, burned down. This resulted in a terrible tragedy for the owner. The owner ended up being related to one of my good neighbors, and allowed me to scavenge bricks from the site. I explained how I work on putting in gardens in many areas of York city, and how there is generally no budget. I get materials by begging, borrowing, yorkWreck_blogsometimes paying for them myself, and in this case, bravely approaching with my trusty trowel in hand, and a truck bed ready to be filled. Be warned, I get a tetnus shot quite regularly. I am in great shape. I plan and research out my trips to scavenge materials for use in gardens very, very carefully. This particular project to obtain bricks is not a project for the faint-hearted, the dainty, the physically weak, the easily disgusted, or those afraid of becoming indescribably, totally, disturbingly filthy. You will also develop smells and people will edge away from you at every opportunity. No one ever said that preparing an area for flowers was going to make you smell sweet!

See this photo? What a mess. It’s a good thing that the owner of this area allowed me to take these bricks. If anyone ever wants to help themselves to discarded bricks, always confirm with the owner first that you are able to take them. Most used bricks, if in good shape, can be sold, and are considered a resource. Even if it’s a big pile of burned crap, its still belongs to someone else. Old wrecked-looking bricks can always be reused. To collect this filthy treasure, I wore very heavy, steel tipped work boots, very heavy thick leather welding gloves, heavy clothes in general, a hard hat and a really good face mask. Digging through an area destroyed by high intensity fire, results in EVERYTHING burning. Plastics, bricks, paper, old asbestos, wire, etc. it’s a real mess and its dangerous and you can NOT afford to take any chances with your health. I only stayed on the outskirts of the location in question, and didn’t venture into any areas that were literally over my head. Gravity was the only thing that kept those standing walls and heavy burned timbers in place. A good strong wind will blow it all down, and did. Don’t be next to it, or under it when it happens. I wasn’t, which is why I’m still alive to write this blog for you. No kidding. Pay attention, plan carefully and avoid problems.

The bricks I took were either full-sized bricks, or half-sized ones. These bricks were exposed to very high temperatures, and a great majority were pulverized into powder. The way that buildings in York, and many older American East Coast cities were built, were out of two types of bricks. Harder red bricks, used on the exterior of buildings, and softer, orange bricks that were used on the interior walls, were both present on the site I was digging through. The bricks also had mortar on some of them. Quite a bit of the mortar was literally burned away, and there was only sand and grit remaining.

I have found many a use for these particular bricks, as have others. The main amount of keyhole_blogbricks (over a thousand) were used to construct a keyhole garden last year at the Hope Street Garden and Learning Lab, part of the Lincoln School, here in York City. Each time I had dug and tampered and leveled the site to make it perfectly flat. I built it 3 times. The first and second time I had constructed it, in hot, humid weather when sane people were inside in air conditioning. It was determined that it needed to be moved later on, to make room for  other projects. This was ok for me, in terms of moving it around, because each time I made alterations in its construction, improving and learning. It was also possible to move it, because I had never mortared it permanently in the first place. Next time, I’ll know better. I’m not moving that dang thing anymore, at ALL.

walkway_blogThe next project I made with the bricks was a brick walkway. I didn’t make it right away, of course, I had to collect and stack the bricks, over and over, in many trips. I used only the best bricks that I had available to me, and this meant that some of the bricks I had chosen at the former building site, were not actually as strong as I had first surmised. I had to reassess the stacked bricks, several times, as projects did not get finished off as quickly as I wanted. (what can I say, a gals gotta sleep sometime). Some of the bricks have been existing in stacked piles, in unobtrusive areas for two years now. It becomes apparent after the first hard winter, just how well some of them hold their condition after their first hard winter. This is a LOT of effort to go through for bricks, but I really wanted older bricks that matched the age and coloring of our house (pre-Civil War era) and so I was happy to accommodate what ever I had to put up with, and learn from.

york_road_blogYork has totally cool bricks. We have a long history with them. They were MADE here! Check out all the new work being done on the streets of York lately. Those messed up bumpy roads of ours, that have kept auto realignment companies in business, have been around for nearly 300 years. The recent scrapings of our battered pavement to improve it, has revealed the older ones underneath. It has unearthed our city’s marvelous brickwork. It has seen horses and wagons and Model T’s and Ford Mustangs and all sorts of vehicles and people. That’s pretty cool. Those bricks get to have your car travel directly over them now as well. They are a time capsule of transportation and we get to try it out here in 2015. Not too shabby. Pay attention to them before they get covered up again soon!

Sometimes I find bricks that are relics, that physically capture the actual moment in time they were made. I just love when this happens. It generally doesn’t grab anyone’s attention, because, realistically, who spends their time examining bricks? Garden Nutjobs like me, that’s who. Garden materials are very important, and their condition and history lend a certain character to any project, that is impossible to reproduce in any other way.

See this pattern? I built this in the back yard of The Hive, a great art spot on King Street in York, in the Royal Square Neighborhood. The area was so completely square, even down to the bricks themselves, that I had to put a swirl into it. Know where the bricks came from? From the pile at the bottom of this page.  Knocked down or collapsed buildings make great places to gather old bricks from. Again, practice safety first.


Now when it comes to constructing our walkway, we had hand dug out a section that had been used as a pathway. In the winter it was a muddy, icy-clot filled messy strip of earth. It was filthy and unsafe and resembled a track some sort of thrashing wild animal would have made. It needed some bricks! We chose bricks because it matches our old brick house and it is also extremely durable. As many of the bricks were obscured by soot and workingWalkway_blogash, it was harder to determine what was softer brick and which was harder. We wanted the harder bricks, especially for a walkway that will endure heavy use. But some where along the line we misidentified some bricks, and used them by mistake. Here’s a photo of what our walkway’s condition looked like when we were installing it,  before its first winter. We had to look up instructions on how deep to dig, and what other materials, such as weed blocker, gravel and sand, ended up being required to get the job done.

I had some bricks left over that I had my heart set on, in putting along side our driveway, because I wanted to make a container type “holding bed” for plants, both permanent and temporary. It also makes a nice method to control raspberries, and other plants that my have a tendency to spread uncontrollably, like oregano. The tilted method of having bricks standing upright is called “soldier” bricks, because they are standing at attention. Try to make your lines straighter then I did, both my bricks and my plastic edging were pushed up against loose gravel, that left me with chisels_blogvery little support when it came time to place them in each spot. You can see how some of the soft bricks, mistakenly used, crumbled into powder and will have to be replaced. Any bricks that were odd edged, we used a hammer and chisel in order to form them better. Some were so oddly shattered, we just used them as fill material when we found we had holes we needed to remove, either in the earth itself, or inside the odd hole or two.

We also put bricks right by our porch lattice, because it’s a great way to keep critters from nosing around by the dirt, digging a quick tunnel, and making a home where it is not supposed to. I reference this in an earlier blog about those crazed rabbits that try to destroy my yard at every sneaky opportunity they get. Not only does using bricks in gardens serve as a great way to make walkways or borders, it also serves to mark areas that should remain permanent, like covering buried electrical lines in a garden that would regularly be tilled every spring. There is no shortage of brilliant, adaptable methods of using bricks. I find that a quick online search also helps when you find you have a big pile of them, and you want to use them up somehow.

soldiers_blogWhen I have black raspberry plants that are trying to send the tips of their new canes down into the earth, (always in the wrong place) I usually pick up the wandering tip, relocate it to a better spot, by digging a small hole for the tip. I place the end of the raspberry cane down in there and cover it well with dirt. It will generally pop up on its own and be obstinate, so I always put a half brick down on top of it to hold it into place, before it gets a chance to grow roots and hold itself in place. Also, when I have green beans growing and I require an item to help me control the string and vines, I tie a brick to it. It helps to weigh it down, and everything grows better because of it.

I have to say, overall, the oldest bricks, were by far superior to any of the others I have used. The ones that were placed next to the fire when they were being hardened in the kiln, also still retain the original glassine effect that happens when it is so close to the fire that the actual sand in the clay mixture becomes superheated and turns into GLASS. These were rare, and very prized bricks to have. Only the wealthiest clients bought bricks to have their houses constructed (just by using bricks was a far costlier construction cost, then a regular wood house). This holds true for today as well. And to top it off, the glassine bricks were even more expensive, as they were specially set aside and inserted into the building of the exterior walls.

Why expend this extra effort, you ask? For a lowly brick that didn’t match any of the others and cost more? Its shiny, darker discolored surface was excellent at reflecting light, which made it a visually striking addition to home builders eager to show off their wealth. These glassy bricks were arranged in a pattern, either in lines or diamond patterns or rough hexes, on the side or front of a house. These bricks would catch the light and literally sparkle from a distance. It was used as a method to tell what time it was, from a distance, because as the sun would move its way across the sky, at cerain times of the day. On really sunny days, it would reflect the light and set off a visual spectacle that could be seen from farther away, then say, a clock. I bet you didn’t know that did you? That’s pretty cool, I think. Bricks were used in both the duty of a structure, and the beauty of a pattern and the duty of telling time. That’s remarkable. Try THAT with Vinyl Siding!


All in all, I have to say that hunting down, collecting, reusing old brick is a very worthwhile effort, but it does require significant amounts of time, and heavy hard work in general, far more then just going out and buying new ones. For any project you try with these, always have a plan! Its too much heavy work to do, otherwise.

Cute Fluffy Visitors, or Hole-Digging Demons from Hell?

Cast your eye upon this unwanted visitor in your garden. Is it cute? Undoubtedly. It is destroying all your most coveted crops? Most assuredly. Can you deal with its presence? Only time and the strength of your personal character will tell. 

bunny 5_blog

They are so wonderful, aren’t they? 

You rescue them from the clutches of death itself (aka your cat) and you think that after you set them free to run, and frolic, and go back to doing what ever it is bunnies do, that they would practice a modicum of restraint when it came to chowing down on your lovely, very ripe, very tasty, very well producing garden. 

Silly, silly you. Face facts. You are growing a literal garden of healthy, super delicious delights for the senses, and it’s just much too much for your little garden bunny dude to resist. It is a tender happy young critter, full of bounce and vigor and lettuce and peas and garden goodies_bloganything else it can get its chompy little mouth on, and it simply cannot help itself. It goes wild with desire when encountering your luscious chard and verdant spinach and everything else you tenderly and devotedly plant and weed and nourish. It hasn’t yet learned to grow wary of your cats and your big stomping feet and the hawks that perch on the roof of your house and cast a hungry eye at anything that twitches.  

You can try chasing after those lovely critters yourself, if you so desire. You can hop and frolic and turn and twist and spin just like these fleet-footed furry speed demons, and see if that gets you any closer to catching them. Trust me, it will not.  You will get more than a few sideways looks from your good neighbors who will know better then to question your activities, since they have grown wise enough to not comment directly on your less then normal, pro-experimental garden methods. Perhaps you might even develop a new type of dancing, or exercise method. Maybe you will win an award for it. I don’t know. I just know that I will try anything to catch those wascally wabbits,  hell-bent on eating my garden! 

clay tubes_blogI do try alternative  methods.  I once had the great filthy pleasure to dig up an old drainage field next to our house, which exists in a low-lying area.  The clay drainage pipes we found, which were not inconsiderable in number, I ended up stacking into a sort of garden folly structure, off to the side of the vegetable garden.  I figured the bunnies could hide in there, surrounded by local wildflowers and fill up on those lovely green items, instead of my spinach plants. It’s a garden practice/ methodology type of  “sacrifice garden”. The theory of sacrifice gardens is exactly what you think it is. It provides a sort of safe haven for critters to live and survive in, eating greenery you choose to sacrifice to the bunnies, and thus providing an easier, less threatened growing season for your own vegetable garden. 

strawbale rabbit_blogI also grow especially tasty vegetables on top of my strawbale gardens. Bunnies, no matter how well they leap and jump, simply can’t make it to the top of these structural garden wonders. My crops of lettuce, radishes, turnips and whatnot remain unmolested and are easier to pick, and remain free from other garden damage from standing water, slugs, etc. its pretty cool. Look how beautiful! There’s more then one way to outsmart a bunny, and I’m going to share what I’ve learned, short of inserting land mines and setting snare traps all throughout the yard.

You know another reason why you have a hard time catching those rabbits? Those critters are healthier and faster and better than you. You know why I know this? Because they don’t eat junk food like us silly humans! They fill up on all YOUR lovely vegetables and fruits, so of COURSE they are healthier than you are!  And you are stuck eating a stale bag of fast food instead of snacking on good home-grown veggies because those crazy furballs already ate all your good tasty produce. Ah. It’s a vicious circle.   

bunny 7_blogSometimes I think the only safe place in the world for these tiny little wonderful, terrible creatures, is inside our hands. See this one? Isn’t it all helpless and innocent and irresistible looking? And yet they chew and destroy quite happily our gardens and plants that we spend not inconsiderable amounts of time and money on.  Grrr. It passes by no chance to dig and chew. They are opportunists on a grand scale and can happily wreak havoc that could easily be attributed to a much larger creature, like say, a Tyrannasarus Rex. How they manage to not grow to gargantuan size is beyond comphrension.

However, you are older than that springtime bunny and have learned how to thwart its nutritional intentions.  At least partially. Let’s practice what we know. “Have a Heart” traps are really great at catching critters. Essentially they work like this: you put some sort of lure into the trap… fresh beautiful fruit, and set the trap. SNAP! You catch the little ravenous critter and your garden is safely preserved for the rest of eternity.  Sounds easy, right? No. That’s not how it works. It is never that easy. Remember, there is ALWAYS another bunny. In wildlife terminology, bunnies are the french fries of the animal world, everybody eats them.  Mama bunny has so many of them, in the brave hope that ONE of them may make it to adulthood. She teaches them things as well. When they are very small, one of their protective behaviors is to freeze, holding themselves quite still.  That’s a pretty impressive feat, considering their natural bunny proclivity to run and dart and flit around on their magic little lucky feet. Taking advantage of Mama Bunny’s “freezing” advice is the only way we were able to grasp any of these tiny bunnies and take these photos.  After photographing them, and cooing over their cuteness and scolding them about their garden wreckage,  (and throwing in a cautionary tale about avoiding cats) we put then in a cardboard box and dropped them off in the not-too- local woods. They better stay there! 

Catching them by hand is not always an option. So let’s discuss other methods of protecting your green little paradise.

 wire fencing_blogFirst you must dig a trench completely surrounding your garden. Then practically kill yourself unwinding chicken wire and hardwire cloth and some sort of superior fencing material, insert it deeply in the aforementioned trench, and around any area of your garden that even hints of a wiff of defensive weakness.  Only after your garden is secure will local bunny dudes and dudettes bother to venture into your lovely “Have a Heart” trap. Once caught, I usually take them to a wooded area and let them go. This practice doesn’t always work, as you have to take them MILES away from where you originally caught them. Their homing instincts are very strong. A friend of mine, a biologist told me once how he knew a guy who captured some particularly irritating squirrels and released them farther away. They continued to reappear. He had a theory the squirrels were the same ones, and so next time he caught them, he painted them, to mark them, and released them 20 miles away. Sure enough, they returned. Remarkable. 

Then there was another person I knew, who hated a golf course development in a formerly wooded area. Like, really and truly HATED it. He ended up catching groundhogs in his own yard and released them at the newly created golf course and let them dig their way deeply into the hearts and minds of the groundskeeping crews. Yup.  So, hearing all these stories makes me ponder what I will do once I catch, IF I catch, my own personal destructive bunny dudes. 

But first, lets look at methods you can employ to impede their access to your property. When bunnies run away, they look for a place to hide. I weeded around the house, and found that bunny dude had dug dirt out from under my porch lattice. rabbit lattice_blogAll of them, actually.  Many little holes dug through dirt and plants and mulch, all ending underneath the front and or back porches. This provided bunnies a hole small enough to access areas far away from the claws and jaws of my cats.  Turns out the tunnel lead to a very roomy and safe area under the porch, for them to hide away in, mock my kitties, and breed more rabbits. Those new rabbits, will in turn, go forth at all hours of day and night, and confidently chow down on even larger sections of your garden. This is not good. Not good for the garden, not good for you, but pretty fabulous for the bunnies. And there is never just one. They take shifts, giggling to themselves  in their high pitched bunny voices, about how they have outsmarted you and your fellow garden-growing humans. And they get to dine upon your formerly lovely garden, all day and all night as well. You, little human, are bound to loose, because you (and your cats) will have to sleep sometime. And you are lulled to sleep by the sound of gentle munching of your garden by those furry beasts. When you sleep, you dream of bunnies and their giant gnashing teeth, ripping and rending and tearing away at your garden and your house, bit by bit, mouthful by mouthful. But enough about me. 

My cats are very good at catching bunnies. Why rabbits feet are considered lucky, I don’t understand, because even with 4 of those lucky charms, each one that visits my garden still inevitably ends up in my cats belly. What I do when I discover these bunny access bunny 4_blogpoints around my house, I remove all weeds so I can see more clearly what is going on. I then pack dirt, and then more dirt into the formerly low area, pound it hard and flat, and then line the entire lattice with a row of bricks, or half bricks.  This acts as an impediment to the digging and is a pretty reliable buffer of protection. It also presents a more formal appearance to your property, and helps to remove piles of materials and debris that may have already existed on your property in the first place, so it’s doing triple duty.

These photos show how I used piles of old bricks and used them as my home defensive border against an army of fluffy invaders. 

brick lattice_blog

In conclusion, protecting your garden from bunny destruction is great. Protecting your home is even greater, because these bunnies not only will burrow under your porches, they continue to dig once under your porch, quite often digging tunnels down to your foundation. These tunnels will fill up with stormwater  later on, which will freeze and expand and can partially crack your foundation, which can possibly fill up with dead stinking unlucky bunny bits and pieces, which you will smell come spring. Trust me, you want to avoid this, and your bunny buddies also want to avoid it as well. Be a good gardener, and a friend to your bunny, and fence, and stack and build and do what you can to provide a good thriving environment for all.