Category Archives: Lazy Organic Gardener

Stone Age Fitness

For Christmas in my family, we pull names out of a hat and give one present to one person. My brother Pat got me back in December, and he suggested maybe he could come out here from Chicago and help with a project.

Yesterday, we started that project — building a rock wall and path for a garden bed on the steep hillside outside my house in Mill Valley. We were stiff and tired last night — maybe the beers contributed to that — but what a great present. Other than the expense of buying the rocks and gravel and stepping stones, I would do this again in a second.

Good thing, because after breakfast, we go at it again. We made excellent progress on our first day, more than I expected, but we’re not done yet. The rock wall is complete (and there are enough rocks left to build another one) and eight of the stepping stones are laid, but we have another dozen or so to go. Plus we had a little mission creep and now we’re also going to redo some of the existing steps down the hillside, which have been an accident waiting to happen.

Here’s what it looks like so far. Not bad for a couple of middle-aged men who sit in front of screens most days.

Here’s the before photo, with a couple sample rocks.

When we selected the rocks, Sonoma fieldstone, the most local and the least expensive, we learned that there are two main sizes, heads and double heads. The double heads were pretty heavy, but we didn’t need many of them. Those were for the bottom row, to create a strong, stable foundation.

It’s Saturday morning. We’re already done. We alloted ourselves three days and finished it in two, even with the mission creep. (Here’s to setting modest goals.) We even did some planting. Here’s a view from above. It already looks good, but will be even better as the plants grow.

photo 3 (2)

We also came up with a new startup idea: Stone Age Fitness. You pay us to be your personal trainers, and we put you to work carrying rocks down steep hillsides. Here’s Pat posing for our promo.

Here’s how we did it:

Minimal Planning, Mostly Improvisation: My plan had been to sketch out the wall and garden using my rudimentary landscape design skills. I did map out my yard in Berkeley, years ago, but it was a flat rectangle. Easy to measure. This is a curved corner lot on a steep hillside. I took a number of measurements, but never did more than the most cursory sketch. (Enough to show it to José at American Soil Products where we bought the stones, so he could help us estimate how many we needed.) More important than the sketches was reading up on some web sites and landscape design books.

What we built is called a “dry-stone retaining wall,” with no mortar to hold the stones together. The Incas built huge walls and agricultural terraces using these methods 600+ years ago. Similar walls from centuries ago have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, China, and many other places. To prepare fields for planting, farmers had to remove rocks from the soil, so they were right there at hand, ready to be used for any needed structures.

Please note: This is not a how-to. We’ve never done this before. We don’t know if the rock wall will come tumbling down in a downpour, will fall over when some deer kicks it. I know more than I did a week ago — that’s as much as I can promise.

What I did do that served as a starting point was approximate where the walls and pathway would be with hoses and stakes. After walking around our worksite, we made some adjustments to these boundaries and started digging.

Fortunately, we had some heavy rains in February and the ground was soft and easy to dig. We piled the dirt on a tarp we spread out on the hillside, with an old plastic turtle sandbox on top to serve as a backstop and prevent the dirt from sliding down the hill.

The Flat Earth Society: For the rock wall and steps to be stable, we needed first to create a level surface. We cut into the hillside with picks and shovels and then, using a tamper from the Berkeley Tool Lending Library — Yay Berkeley — created a strip about three to four feet wide. Then we poured gravel on that strip and tamped it again. That was wide enough for both the foundation of the wall and the flagstone steps in front of it.

The original specs were for one rock wall about a foot deep, two feet high, and six to eight feet long, leaning into the hillside, holding a garden bed about four feet deep. Almost as important was a level pathway in front of the garden and connected to the steep steps along the side of the house. The hillside is steep enough that it’s a challenge to find any spot where you can stand with both feet at the same level. On the morning we started the job, we got two pallets delivered to our driveway with 1.5 tons of Sonoma fieldstone, 15 rustic green rectangular flagstones, each 1 foot by 2, and four bags of gravel, nowhere close to how many we needed.

We laid the flagstone steps first, because then we could stand on them while we built the wall, which went up surprisingly fast. We did have to lug a lot of rocks thirty feet or so down these steep treacherous steps from the driveway to the worksite. Below you can see Pat standing on the first three steps we laid and the cut we made into the hillside. The next shot shows the beginning of the wall.

We angled the wall ever so slightly in toward the hillside, and when we reached about a foot high, we filled behind it with lots of gravel (for drainage) and some of the dirt we had dug out earlier. The stacking of the rocks was like putting together a puzzle. At first, I was looking for specific shapes, then I found it made more sense to just pick one or two rocks and then find the best spot for them on the wall. We did our best to overlap one double head on top of two heads, the way a brickmason would overlap bricks.

We completed most of the rock wall and six of the flagstone steps by midday and then we had to go out and buy some more gravel, flagstone steps, and lumber.

Overbuilding: My brother and I have both done a lot of work around our houses for years, but he’s more experienced and skilled at construction, and he suggested we get some pressure treated 4 x 4s and 2 x 8s to create frames for the stepping stones as they descended the hill. (My original thought was to do without, but he argued, correctly, that we wanted this to last through heavy rains, and we should err on the side of overbuilding. So we did.)

You can see below, just to the left of the yellow pick, the way the lumber framing allows us to move down the hills and keep the flagstones level.

As I said, we had more rocks than we needed for one wall, so we built additional ones, to create another planting area, but mostly to give more support on the downhill side of the flagstones. So a hard rain wouldn’t wash out the gravel and dirt underneath them.

Natives, Not Vegetables: My original thought was to grow greens in the bed — chard, kale, lettuce, spinach, and so on. (Not enough sun or heat to grow tomatoes.) I knew that because of the deer, we would need to build some sort of cage to cover the bed. I did more sketches of that than the rock wall itself.

I’m a newcomer to this hillside home. My wife has lived here for more than 20 years, I’ve been here less than one. She likes the natural oak woodland look and I promised that the garden bed project would be in keeping with the natural surroundings. Certainly the rock wall seems very organic. If we dug deep enough, we’d probably find rocks just like the ones we piled into a wall.

But a cage over the bed? That could be ugly. So we decided instead for native perennials that were deer-resistant, and went down Friday afternoon to the native plant nursery at Tam Junction and picked up two coffeeberry bushes, three sages, and several grasses and groundcovers.

Here’s our planted garden from below. Pretty great, huh? While these are native plants, they may take a year or more to get fully established. Especially given the drought. But once they do, well, they’ll act as if they belong here.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

Starting Small

I’m not truly lazy. I would never garden if I were. I can buy organic produce at any number of nearby grocers and most have flowers too. But there’s something about growing them myself that I can’t shake.

But. After more than twenty years living in the flatlands of Berkeley, where I built garden beds and amended the soil with compost and manure and had sun for most of the day, I’m now living on a steep shady hillside in Mill Valley where deer nibble at everything, even allegedly deer-resistant plants like oleander. Oh, and we’re now officially in a drought.

The good news is that the winter days here have been sunny and gorgeous, with mid-afternoon temps in the high 60s and now and then hitting 70. Downright criminal for January, especially for a kid who grew up in Chicago. But I can wear shorts outside. In January.

The hillside is full of oak and bay trees and there’s a natural beauty to it that i want to keep, but I still have visions of terraced garden beds lush with vegetables and flowers. Here’s a shot of my backyard garden in Berkeley from a few summers ago.

And here’s the hillside this morning.

I know the overgrown Berkeley look is not appropriate for the hills of Marin, especially during a drought. But maybe I can create a little oasis among the oak and chaparral. A neighbor down the hill has just had his backyard landscaped, and that’s given me some ideas. See those curving rock walls and the steps up the hill. It’s much more ambitious than I can even consider right now, Doesn’t stop me from dreaming.

Actually I’ve been imagining rock walls ever since our visit two summers ago to the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley. Here’s one of the many Inca sites we visited, full of mortarless rock walls and irrigation channels that carried water down from the mountains.

(FYI, I tried to identify that photo above, which I took, but didn’t identify. I gave up before I could, but I did find a portfolio of terraced farms, mostly from Vietnam and China. Also a few from Peru.

These visions will have to wait. (There’s lazy and there’s lazy.) I did start a garden this week, however. I started small. With a wheelbarrow, a planter box, and seeds.

I repurposed an old metal wheelbarrow, full of holes from rust, lined it with landscape cloth, filled it with potting soil and compost, and planted mesclun (summer salad mix) and arugula seeds. I know arugula grows easily from seeds. We’ll see about the lettuce mix.

The wheelbarrow is sitting on the deck outside the kitchen window. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll need to protect those baby greens from deer, which have, on occasion, brazenly trotted onto the deck. (We’ve seen evidence of their eating habits too.)

The easiest way is to string a net across the five-foot wide entrance to the deck, but that means hooking and unhooking when we go in and out through the front door. Another option, which I’ve working on, but isn’t finished, is a lightweight hoop/cage that fits over the top of the wheelbarrow.  You can see what I have so far — it’s made from water sprouts pruned from my pluot tree in Berkeley, bent and held together with twine. It’s fallen apart once, but Iwith some patience, I can make it work. Once I get the “skeleton” stable, I’ll attach some a screen over the top and that should keep out the deer.

My other venture was even easier, though I had to pull out my drill. I screwed two metal brackets into the railing posts of the lower deck, high enough above the ground that even a deer on stilts can’t reach it, set an old redwood planter box on them, and planted about 15 ruby red chard seeds. Will thin later. I added a spoonful of 5-20-5 fertilizer I found under the house.

I have no drip irrigation set up here in Mill Valley so for now I will have to hand water, every day until the seeds germinate.

It’s a small step, but it’s a start. Brings to mind that Goethe quote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

And so I did.

It may be a while before I built the rock terrace walls. But I think I’ll buy a new hose this weekend.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

The Meek Do Not Inherit the Earth — In Defense of Shameless Self-Promotion

Disclosure #1: There’s no gardening in this post, unless you count nature, which one could call divine gardening, if one were inclined. My intention is that this blog will be primarily about gardening, but it’s January and it feels like it’s never going to rain again in northern California, and it’s a challenge to write about gardening when I’m not doing any.

But gardening can serve as a metaphor for all sorts of things, so I think I’m covered until I get some seeds in the ground. Meanwhile, here’s a blast from the past that does include gardening — Two Top Ten Lists From the Lazy Organic Gardener.

I grew up in the Midwest and my parents were serious, albeit liberal Catholics, with maybe a bit more Calvinism in the mix than some. (I remember my Mom once saying, “You kids are having too much fun.” Now in her defense, usually one of us was crying five minutes later, so it’s not that she didn’t want us to enjoy ourselves. It’s just that pleasure was dangerous.)

Modesty was a big part of this package. How much of that came from being a Midwesterner, how much from being an Irish Catholic, and how much came from my parents is hard to sort out. But bragging was not something we did.

I’ve forgotten much more than I remember of the biblical stories and phrases we learned, but “the meek shall inherit the earth” — that stuck. It’s not that that sentiment was pounded into us as much as it was in the air and water. We were supposed to be patient, not pushy. Good things will come to those who wait.

Now for a child, those imperatives makes some sense. There’s plenty of evidence that children who can delay gratification tend to be more successful. And happier.

But the meek-shall-inherit-the-earth message is arguably about delaying gratification until you’re dead. Which is way too long.

Anyone who has actively worked to make the world a better place knows it’s not going to happen if you wait patiently. We didn’t get the Clean Air Act or the rights of women and blacks to vote or gay marriage by waiting patiently. Every advance had to be fought for. Has to be fought for.

But fighting for things. That can annoy people. Who wants to be a nag?

I bring this up because within the last month, I published Bones in the Wash — Politics is Tough, Family is Tougher, a novel set during the 2008 presidential election in New Mexico, and I left my job at the Sierra Club after 25 years.

Because I do want people to buy and read my book and I do need an income, now I have to become a shameless self-promoter.

(In case you’re wondering what these photos have to do with modesty, well, I took a long hike in Point Reyes to mark the new year and get some inspiration from the natural world — that pretty much never fails — and composed this post as I walked.)

For many years, a major chunk of my job was to promote the activities and visions of others. I was a writer, editor, and designer, and I told stories about the people on the front lines, who were fighting for clean water or endangered turtles or wilderness.

It was a behind the scenes role, and in fact, about seven years ago, I received an award called the Behind the Scenes Award for my work. I remember I gave a little speech, and talked about happiness, sharing the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who differentiates three kinds of happiness.

The first is pleasure. We enjoyed a good meal. Had an exciting day skiing. The second is absorption, where we are so focused on what we are doing that the rest of the world recedes. Seligman uses the example of an geologist who studies crystals and starts the day looking into his microscope at a crystal and then is startled because he thinks someone has come into his lab and blocked the light when in fact the sun has gone down.

The third kind of happiness is meaning, in which what we are doing is bigger than we are. That’s why I stayed at Sierra Club for 25 years, because of the meaning.

(I don’t recall if I included my favorite Seligman anecdote, which he uses to illustrate optimism, but I can’t resist including it now. A child and her mother are driving, and the daughter says, “Mom, where are all the assholes today?” Whereupon her mother answers, “Oh, they’re only out on the road when your father drives.”)

But meaning, I was talking about meaning. That was how I was able to push past my modesty and promote various causes and people. It wasn’t about me.

Now it is

In my farewell note to my work colleagues, I said a lot of nice things about people I worked with, and I ended with a little blurb about my book and my modesty.

If I were a shameless self-promoter, I would tell you all about my recently published novel, Bones in the Wash, a political thriller + family soap + murder mystery set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. And available as a trade paperback and e-book. But I was born and bred in the Midwest, so it’s hard to break out of that modesty-is-best mentality.

Oh, did I mention you can read the first three chapters at


That’s one way I’ve managed this self-promotion. By keeping it light. By mocking myself a bit.

Oh, did I also say that I’m a skilled and experienced writer + editor + designer + strategist, occasionally brilliant and always reliable?

I welcome your ideas on self-promotion.