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Special Section

Home & Garden

 

Soil Crisis
By Darryl McGrath

If nothing will grow in the hard, cracked clay in your backyard, take heart—and take up the art of garden restoration

 

If you’re like most homeowners in down town Albany, Troy or just about any other Capital Region city, you bought your historic house because you loved the architectural details, the neighborhood and the convenience of the urban setting. The backyard? Whoever looks at the backyard?

Well, you might, especially if your first spring in your new home comes and goes and you realize that nothing is growing spontaneously out there, and nothing you’ve planted has survived.

It’s time to go out and squeeze a handful of damp dirt.

The “squeeze test” will tell you what any gardening expert in the area already knows: Your backyard is mostly clay. When you squeeze a fistful of dirt and it holds its shape after you open your fingers, you’ve got clay.

Malleable and dense, taffy-like in consistency when wet, and solid as a brick when dry (in fact, clay is the main component of bricks), clay soil is a sign of the Hudson River’s proximity. It’s also largely impermeable to water. And then, when it finally dies, your backyard looks like the Salt Flats of Utah, cracked and hard as a rock. Very few vegetables or ornamental plants can survive in such conditions.

“With that soil, the only way you’re going to actually grow vegetables, or even a flower crop, is you’re going to have to incorporate a lot of organic material,” said David Diligent, a Delmar resident and longtime gardener who has taught classes on composting.

Take heart. You can get good dirt in an urban backyard. Fragrant, rich loam—thick with organic matter, as crumbly as chocolate cake, and bursting with earthworms—is a beautiful sight. But it’s going to take some work.

Diligent recommends testing the soil before you start trying to restore it, to make sure it doesn’t contain lead from old paint flaking off the house into the yard. If your property is contaminated with lead, then raised, enclosed flower beds that don’t touch the existing soil are an option, as long as you’ve addressed the source of the contamination, and are satisfied that paint won’t continue to flake into the raised beds.

If you do decide to enrich your soil, consider your setting. Backing a truck up to your property and dumping a load of dirt probably won’t work in a city because so many urban backyards are landlocked. That means you’ll either have to make your own soil by composting on-site, hand-carry bags of topsoil through your house and into the backyard, or use a combination of both approaches.

Again, with mulch or compost that you buy or carry in, make sure you know what you’re putting on the ground.

“There’s a real problem with contaminated topsoils and mulches,” says Judy Stacey, Albany’s city gardener. Compost made from sewage sludge can contain heavy metals that get into sewer systems through runoff.

Albany provides free compost to city residents willing to cart it home in their own containers. The compost contains pulverized leaves, brush and trees, mixed with horse manure and sand. Residents can collect it from the compost pile at the end of Erie Boulevard, near the Albany Department of General Services headquarters, during regular business hours. The compost pile operates on the honor system; the city asks that residents take no more than two five-gallon containers per trip.

If you choose to do your own composting, you don’t need fancy equipment. You can get a compost pile going by simply marking off a space in your backyard, throwing down some vegetable scraps, and topping off the pile with good-quality dirt. Manure, leftover salad, coffee grounds, grass cuttings, tea bags—all are fair game for the compost pile. Avoid bones or meat scraps, Stacey advises; they attract rodents.

Key to making the compost pile work is the periodic addition of soil. The compost needs the microbes in the dirt to break down the organic matter, says Susan Pezzola, who runs the Master Gardener program at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Albany County.

Keep the compost moist, and repeat the process of adding and turning every few days. If you start in the spring, you’ll have rich, black compost before the end of the summer.

Once you’re ready to begin working the compost into your yard, consider how this confined urban space has been used and abused for the past century. Certainly, plants are capable of growing in the soil Mother Nature provided in the Capital Region; witness the lush trees in the unmanicured fringes of Albany’s Lincoln Park.

But backyards in the late 1800s were functional, not decorative, notes Bill Bouchard, project manager at Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc., in Albany. Nineteenth-century homeowners and their servants used the backyard to hang the laundry, dump the coal cinders, and collect the rainwater. (Countless brick or wooden cisterns are still buried in downtown Albany backyards, Bouchard says, having survived so well because they are embedded in water-resistant clay.) The compacted surface soil became almost impenetrable.

For contemporary gardeners, this means it’s going to take effort and patience to break through the hard exterior and get the soil to a workable texture. Different models of manual or power-driven tillers abound in gardening stores and catalogues; at the very least, you’ll need a long-handled spade with a good edge to break up the soil.

You’ll also need patience. Building up the soil in a backyard can take a few seasons. When you’re ready to plant, Pezzola advises getting the soil tested to determine if it needs to be more acidic or alkaline. Most county cooperative extensions, including Albany’s, charge $2 to test a soil sample, and they will tell a gardener what needs to be added, in what proportions, to achieve the correct chemical balance, Pezzola says. (Contact the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Albany County at 765-3500 for more information.)

Composting advocates speak ardently of the rewards of restoring soil slowly and carefully.

Organic compounds, added back to the soil by composting, “encourage building up the soil, aerating it and helping heal it,” says Brian Caldwell, the farm-education coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and a farmer in West Danby, just south of Ithaca. “You don’t get that with Miracle Gro, or any other chemical fertilizers.”

Small Townhouse, Big Yard
By Miriam Axel-Lute

Neighbors in Albany’s Center Square tear down fences and build up community

 

>From the street, you can’t tell that anything connects the three townhouses on Hudson Avenue besides their shared walls. But if you’re lucky enough to stand on the back deck of 307, 305, or 303, you get a different perspective. Unlike much of the internal blocks of neighborhoods like this, which are generally carved up into small, well-fenced yards, each bearing little relation to its neighbors, these three homes, plus two on the Jay Street side of the block, have done away with fences, leaving a relatively spacious lot with flagstone paths, brick-bordered flower beds, and lots of neighborly interaction. “It’s almost big enough to take a stroll in,” jokes Nate Buccieri, whose yard is a relative newcomer to the shared situation.

There wasn’t a fence between 305 and 303 when Mark Johnson and his partner moved into the middle of the three houses. Originally, “I had no intention of putting my hands in dirt,” says Johnson. 305’s yard was barren, but their neighbors, Cathy and Dan, had some flagstone paving and a few small bushes out back, and Johnson liked what he saw. He started working on his own yard, and getting to know Cathy and Dan. He began weeding their yard too when he was out. Then he began taking clippings from overgrown plants in their yard and transplanting them in his, and returning the favor by planting some flowers in their beds.

Eventually it got to the point where “every Christmas she gives me a Home Depot card,” says Johnson, and he goes to town on the whole space. “I have a membership in every garden store from here to Clifton Park.”

But many of the yards around the double yard were still a mess. Two Jay Street properties across the way had been empty for 15 years. And the yard at 307 Hudson was a wreck, full of garbage and the pieces of a rotting deck. “We would focus down on our [shared] yard from our deck because it was so depressing” to look any farther, says Johnson. “We were going to get a big solid fence so we didn’t have to look at it.” But then Buccieri moved into 307 in January 2004. “Nate said, ‘Oh your yard is so nice,’ ” recalls Johnson. “We like Nate.”

Yard sharing isn’t anything that would have occurred to Buccieri before, but when the idea came up, it made perfect sense. So the aging wire fence came down, and Buccieri’s yard is starting take shape as part of the larger whole. “Now we have a flow,” says Johnson.

The Jay Street properties have also been rehabbed, and the mess in their yards cleaned up, but so far only one is occupied. Johnson says they’re waiting to be sure who will be moving into the second one and what their interest is before putting any landscaping energy into those yards. It’s even possible that the fences could go back up if a new occupant isn’t into the idea. But they’re hoping not.

It’s not like the yard sharers think every yard should be open. They are on good terms with the people who live in the house right behind 305, for example. But that family has two moderately large dogs, and wanted to keep a fence “to keep the poop in their own yard,” says Buccieri. “We appreciate that.”

Still, Johnson and Buccieri talk wistfully about opening up larger swaths of the block’s interior—enough to “play kickball in” perhaps. Across the country, some groups of neighbors have done just that, usually co-housing groups like the N Street Co-Housing in Davis, Calif., which intentionally bought up the houses on a particular block, incrementally joining yard after yard until they had room for communal hot tubs, compost piles, playgrounds and fruit trees.

Hudson Avenue may not be sporting an intentional co-housing group any time soon, but yard sharing has definitely spawned more than just some nice visuals and extra room to stretch. “Without it we might be those neighbors who pass each other and just go into the house,” says Johnson. But now they trade keys, check on each other’s house when someone is away, spontaneously share dinner on the back deck, and generally look out for each other.

“Even with fences, you’re not really going to have privacy,” says Buccieri. “You might as well be family.”

maxel-lute@metroland.net

More With Less
By Kathryn Lurie

Just because you’ve sacrificed space, it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style

 

For many people, especially renters, living in an urban area often means living in a small one-bedroom or studio apartment, or having roommates to help cut down on costs. Living in a small apartment can be challenging when it comes to transforming it into a functional and practical living space. Here’s a quick, common-sense guide to help you out when you tackle the obstacles of decorating your small space.

1. Build up.

You probably don’t have too much floor space, so utilize your wall space. Choose tall, slim bookshelves and hang paintings high on the wall to draw the eye upward.

2. Choose only one large (central) piece of furniture for every room.

In the bedroom, this piece of furniture would be the bed. In the living room, it would be the sofa; in the kitchen, the table, etc. Too much furniture makes rooms look cramped. Often, a second sofa or futon can be replaced with a stylish arrangement of small, space-saving chairs. Also, be reasonable: Don’t try to fit a full-size sofa or a queen-size bed into tiny living rooms and bedrooms. Always measure the space you have before you try to fit something in.

3. Don’t acquire too much stuff.

For some people (especially those who love to shop, like me), this is a challenge. When your apartment is outfitted in all the necessities, steer clear of buying more furniture, or anything else, for that matter, without getting rid of something. (You want to replace your card table with an actual wooden kitchen one? Go ahead, just remember to dispose of the previous one.) So beware, because it’s very easy to obtain more stuff than you need, and therefore, more stuff than will fit.

4. Make good use of the space you do have.

When you’re working with a very small amount of space, every square inch counts. Buy rolling bins for under-the-bed storage of linens, seasonal clothes, shoes, etc. Make the most out of your closet by adding hooks, shelves, and/or plastic storage bins. Your bookcases are not just for books anymore—add storage for remotes, photos and more by fitting your bookcases with baskets and tins.

5. Adhere to simplicity of design.

The Scandinavians have the right idea: clean lines, classic colors and patterns, and practical design all contribute to a more comfortable small-space dwelling. Use minimal drapery (instead, plain Roman blinds are adequate window dressing) and simple patterns (if you have a crazy floral motif on your sofa, a pretty slipcover serves as an economical choice to alter the look).

6. Use small electronics and appliances.

Don’t let electronics dominate your household! The smaller the space, the smaller the things you use need to be to fit into it. Instead of a huge stereo system, use a desk-top executive unit. Not only do they look classy, they’re small and can fit on a bookshelf. Use a TV that is an appropriate size for the size of your living room. It’s absurd to have a television that takes up half of the room, anyway. Anything you need in the kitchen usually comes in smaller sizes, too—look for small microwaves and coffemakers instead of standard-size—they make all the difference when you have little to no counter space.

7. Incorporate related colors in all rooms.

Using variations of the same color scheme in all sections or rooms of your apartment will make the space feel more consistent and less choppy than if you were to use a different palette in each room. Use light colors with darker accents instead of one solid color to give the sense of more space. Try to avoid stark white, though; it’s a cold, institutional color (unless, of course, you’re going for that look).

8. Breathe some life into the place.

You can make a small space feel and look a lot less stifling if you welcome stimulation from the outside. Choose light, breathable fabrics for window treatments to let in natural light. Place potted plants next to windows to for a touch of the outdoors on the inside.

9. Trick the eye with mirrors.

It’s no secret that a big, well-placed mirror does wonders for a room, big or small. Mirrors give the illusion of having a bigger space, and a pretty frame can add to the décor as well.

10. And finally, be organized!

Here, the old adage comes in quite handy: A place for everything, and everything in its place. Nothing makes a small space feel smaller than clutter. Keep your papers filed, your clothes folded, and your cabinets clean. Daily maintenance of these and other sections of your space makes day-to-day small-space living much, much easier.

 


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