Tag Archives: fence

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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Fence rails

I had a fence to build! The details, materials, and design were fleshed out. I was itching to to convert the theory into an actual, built product.

The fence posts were in place, which allowed us to install the bottom and top rails. Because the bottom rail will sit right at the pavement edge, we had to excavate a little more along the sidewalk. The curb side edge was already excavated from our paver edge installation.

We cut the top and bottom two by four rails to length and attached them with structural connectors to the posts. At the same time, we pre-drilled the two by two rails that will hold the rebar and attached them to the back of the two by four rails.

I chose to only install the fence rails around the perimeter, because I still have to excavate for the rain garden. That will be easier to do if I can move up and down the parkway and in and out at the path crossings.

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Fussing over fence details

My nicely aligned posts alone won’t make a fence. I had to make up my mind about the fence panels, so let’s get back to basics for a minute:

Using metal in the fence panels is a risky proposition as it might get snatched by scavengers overnight. Instead, we opted to use pressure treated lumber. We installed the four by four fence posts, and I planned to use two by fours for the fence rails.

The rails alone won’t suffice. I needed a somewhat solid fence panel to keep trash from blowing into the rain garden vegetation. I considered a whole gamut of ideas, but let me make this short.

The concept of woven fence panels persisted. Woven, like wicker furniture or an old fashioned willow basket. This would add a level of surprise or contrast, as it would not be expected in an urban context. Yet I’d have to make it sufficiently robust to persist through the urban pressures.

And this is where I had to rely on metal after all: half inch or number four rebar. While I still wanted to use a wooden material like willow for the horizontal weft, the vertical warp had to be rebar.

But how could I prevent the rebar from growing legs at night? By slipping it through a pre-drilled top rail and into a three quarter inch hole in the bottom rail. A handrail attached to the top rail would lock the rebar in place.

One problem was solved, but another one was created. I ended up with two very different fences in close proximity: the woven panel knee fence around the parkway and our typical Chicago style black metal yard fence.

Patchworks of different style can generate something visually stimulating. But in this case, creating a connection between these two different enclosures and as such weaving the parkway landscape into the remaining landscape on our property would be more inviting. Rather than passing a semi-public landscape on the parkway side and a private landscape behind the property fence, we would prefer to invite observers to pass through an extension of our private landscape, which reaches all the way to the curb.

How could I begin to weave those two landscape together? Literally by weaving. I could use the same willow material that I plan on using in the knee fence panels, and weave a solid panel into the bottom our our yard fence. The added benefit would be that even more blowing trash close to the ground will be blocked by semi-solid paneling and kept out of our plantings.

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Getting my posts in a row

Setting fence posts starts with the corners. Once the corners are set, get a mason line and a level. That makes it fairly straightforward to get all other posts perfectly lined up, plumb and at the same elevation.

When a post was positioned, we braced it and temporarily connected it with two by fours to the adjacent posts so that it stayed in place. After a full line of posts was set, we carefully poured the concrete footing around each of the post bases. We knew that if we didn’t do it carefully, we might have moved post base and would have had to start re-aligning. And that is a time suck, believe me!

There is a simple trick on how to make pressure treated posts last. Don’t set them on concrete, set them in concrete.

If you set them on concrete, water has difficulty getting out and the post base becomes soggy which accelerates rot, even if they are pressure treated. If you make sure that the bottom one inch is sitting in soil – or even better, on pea gravel – the post base has a chance to drain and dry out, which should make it last longer.

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Ploughing for posts and pavers

The first step: Throwing some dirt around.

We established that we need to install a knee fence to protect the future rain garden landscape in our parkway. We also concluded that we needed a paved strip along the curb to have enough room for passengers to exit their cars parked on the street.

To execute these objectives, we started excavating for the paver strip to accommodate the pavers and an aggregate base below them. We also started digging the holes for the 32 inch fence posts, deep and wide enough so that one third of the fence post can be anchored in the ground with a concrete footing.

Because a metal fence may not have the desired life span, we opted for a pressure treated lumber construction. That in turn determined the distance between the fence posts, which should not exceed eight feet and preferably be six feet or shorter. These dimensions should assure that the fence rails made of two by fours will be sound enough to hold the weight of a couple of people sitting on the fence – just in case.

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