All posts by Marcus de la fleur

About Marcus de la fleur

Marcus is a Registered Landscape Architect with a horticultural degree from the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Sheffield, UK. He developed a landscape based sustainable pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. in 2002, and has expanded his skill set to building science. Starting in 2009, Marcus applied the newly acquired expertise to the deep energy retrofit of his 100+ year old home in Chicago.

Not quite a basket case

I need willow branches – a whole lot of willow branches that I can weave into my prepared parkway fence panels.

As it so happens, we live right next to Douglas Park, one of Chicago’s great city parks. And through some mysteriously lucky circumstances, a landscape crew started to clear the invasive brush in the natural areas of the park last fall. That included large stands of willow.

I walked over to the crew supervisor and asked if he would mind if I pulled some willow branches out of the brush piles they cut. He didn’t mind at all, and so began another seemingly endless salvaging project of mine.

To make the weaving work, I had to get branches that were as long as or longer than the panel section. That would allow me to weave it from that start to the end of each panel.

I have shorter panels of four and a half feet (perpendicular to the road) and longer panels of up to seven feet (parallel to the road). The shorter panels require shorter willow branches, which are also generally thinner and thus easier to bend. I subsequently spaced the rebar in the short panels six inches on center. That was almost too tight as I sometimes had difficulties pulling the willow through.

The rebar in the longer panels was spaced 12 inches on center to accommodate the longer and thus thicker willow branches. That spacing made bending and the weaving process pretty smooth.

To get each panel filled evenly, I had to alternate a thick willow end with a thin willow end. And I had to make sure that each woven branch was firmly pushed down.

Once a panel was filled, I cut of the willow ends, pushed them in and locked them in place with a three quarter by three quarter blocking. That gave each panel a nice finish.

If you have read some of my previous posts, you know that I was concerned about the rebar being snatched by scavengers. Well, let me tell you, the friction of the woven willow panel makes it virtually impossible to pull out that rebar. The only way to remove it would be to remove the willow first. I don’t think anyone is going to bother with that.

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Rigging the rebar

I had settled on woven fence panels, using willow branches for the weft and rebar pieces for the warp.

I was finally at the point where I could get started on installing the rebar. All the fence rails were in place and pre-drilled. All I had to do now was slip rebar in each slot, mark it, and cut it to the right length.

I mentioned that anything metal that isn’t firmly attached may start growing legs. To prevent the rebar from walking, I screwed the handrail on the top fence rail, which effectively locked the rebar in place.

At this point my hope was that trying to pull out the rebar was not worth the effort or risk to any potential scavenger.

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Closing it up

To avoid casualties, I finished the fence rails around the parkway rain garden before I started with the excavation. I wanted to collect stormwater runoff from the street and not people falling into the rain garden.

I did, however, leave out the interior fence rails flanking the parkway paths. That allowed me to have free movement between the three rain garden cells, which made the excavation process easier.

As the rain garden excavation was completed and the brick paver edge installed, it was time to install the last fence rails.

This was starting to look good! I was so close to getting the fence panels [LINK] installed.

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Lipstick on a pig

I declared dislike for concrete pavement. So what was I to do with the concrete pavement that already existed, such as the parkway path? Rip it up and replace it with something that has a better longevity and is more artistic?

That was a very tempting thought, but it came up against my practical inclinations. The best time to replace things is when they start falling apart. The existing parkway path was not at that point – yet.

That left me with the question about what to do with this monolithic gray mass.

How about the “putting lipstick on a pig” approach? I could frame the concrete path with a row of salvaged, old Chicago street pavers, transforming it from monolithic to something the eye can manage.

Unlike the parkway path with the pavers, the monolithic concrete slab did not need a structural constraint around the edges. It was both, constraint and pavement. That allowed me to place the framing pavers on a simple gravel base, instead of a concrete bed.

The pavers will get almost no traffic, and with that almost no stress. People prefer to walk along the centerline of the path, i.e. on the concrete slab. Rarely will anyone need to step on the pavers.

My last thought on this subject went toward deconstruction. At one point, I would like to replace the concrete slab. Removing the paver edge and concrete slab will be a easier with the pavers just sitting on gravel.

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Parkway rain garden excavation

I had to excavate our parkway rain garden to a ponding depth of six inches. It was a very simple task, except for the treasure hunting aspect of our urban soils.

I didn’t want to start with the excavation until I had a barrier around the rain garden. Although the drop into the bottom of the rain garden wouldn’t be more than nine inches, I still was worried someone could fall into it. Now that I had a fence surrounding the parkway rain garden, with the exception of the fence panels, I was ready to start digging.

My goal was to plant my rain garden plants into a medium that resembles top soil. That was not an unrealistic goal, considering that the top layer in the parkway was a fairly good quality topsoil. But what was lurking underneath made things a lot more interesting. In a way, it was a little bit like archeological discovery that told a story corroborated by the surrounding landscape.

The parkway rain garden will stretch across two city lots. To the east is a vacant lot. It once had a building on it, but that was torn down. I am not quite sure when but it must have been sometime after the 60s. To the west is the lot on which sits our house, which was built in 1902. It think it is fair to assume to most buildings on our block were built around that time, including the house that once stood proudly on the vacant lot.

In my preparations for excavating I noticed that the parkway at the vacant lot had topsoil layer of about four inches, followed by a good six to eight inches of soil mixed with rubble. Below that was a decent layer of dark colored subsoil.

The parkway section in front of our house did not have the rubble layer. The topsoil slowly transitioned into an equally dark colored subsoil. It comes close to an uncontaminated or clean soil profile.

That may speak to the construction methods around 1900. I could assume that the crews cleaned up the site once they were done with the building, but I seriously doubt that. I think it is more likely that back in the day, builders didn’t use the equipment we have available today, and thus didn’t recklessly ruin the soils the way we do today.

The rubble layer at the vacant lot, on the other hand, most likely dates back to the tear down of the building.

Overall and given our urban environment we are blessed with decent soils, which we could maintain as long as I could find a way to address the rubble layer.

My method was as follows: I started by excavating and saving the topsoil, which is now in a stock pile in the vacant lot. Next I excavated the rubble layer and hauled it off site. Once I started excavating to the west, I relocated part of that topsoil to the east, until I had met my ponding depth of six inches.

A Tom Sawyer moment

When I started excavating, it was still summer break and the kids on the block were stifled by boredom, including four brothers who live two houses down. First they found some distraction by watching me dig. That lasted about ten minutes. Then they riddled me with questions. That lasted a little longer. Then they argued among each other who would do the best job digging. And finally they were begging me to help.

I got my spare shovel and let them have a try. To my surprise, the youngest and smallest of the four was not only the most skillful, but also the most relentless. He almost kept up with me. And once the last of his brothers had his turn, he wanted right back into the game – and I was grateful for the help!

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