At Home With Jeff: Best of plans

Martinez News-Gazette Columnist

I have finished enough home improvement projects to understand that the final product is never one hundred percent what was initially envisioned. Colors look different after you get them home from the store. Dimensions must be compressed or stretched slightly to fit in with existing conditions that are almost never plumb and level. Projects frequently get more complicated after opening a wall or floor. Such was the case with our big landscaping project.

In the spring of 2013, Vivian and I decided to terrace the hillside in our backyard. It was a steep dirt slope that rose up from the patio twenty feet at a 45 degree angle. Every winter, piles of dirt would wash down to cover the patio.

After studying the problem for several years, we decided to install terraced retaining walls. We bought 200, pre-engineered retaining wall blocks. These were delivered on a pallet to the street in front of the house. Because of the stairs, each block weighing 55 pounds had to be individually carried to the back yard. With the help of our kids, we did that in one weekend.

Next, we had delivered a ton of crushed rock required for drainage behind the retaining wall. They dumped it in the street front of the house. It took two more weekends to bag this into seventy thirty-pound bags and carry them to the back yard.

At this point, I started wondering about the wisdom of this whole project but it was too late. We were committed.

The next phase was to cut tiers into the hillside for the terraces. The first tier was three feet high, three feet deep, and twenty feet long. Vivian and I hacked at the sandstone for three weekends with shovel, pick, mattock, and hoe. It was hard work until my brother stopped by. “What are you doing?” he shook his head. “You are doing it all wrong.”

Lewis was a carpenter by trade. He knew a lot more about building things than I will ever know. He returned the next weekend with his 14 Amp electric jack hammer with spade bit. Thanks to him, the second and third tiers were finished much more quickly.

Next came assembly of the walls. I started to lay them out but didn’t get far when Vivian chimed in, “I think the wall should be serpentine, not straight.”

“Serpentine?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

Vivian drew lines on the ground where the walls would swing in and out in wide arcs. Vivian is an artist so frequently she has these inspirations. Here eye is usually better than mine so we went with it. The serpentine wall came out nicely but not before we had to go back to the store twice for more retaining wall blocks.

After the wall was finished, we had to buy plants. We were looking for trees to go in the back of the yard in front of the hill and on the first terrace. It just so happened that five-gallon fruit trees were on sale the day we sent shopping. We picked out a miniature lime tree, an orange tree, and an apricot tree.

Five years later, the orange tree has not grown at all. It clings to life. The lime tree is eight feet tall but has never produced a lime. The apricot tree is our great success story. It is twenty feet high with a ten foot canopy. Last year, we had a nice crop of apricots. That is a funny story.

In June, Vivian went to Washington to visit relatives. Home alone, I watered the garden and counted my apricots every evening. In a short time, they ripened from green to yellow to gold.

One evening, I climbed the ladder and picked one. The fruit was absolutely perfect with not a single blemish. It smelled ripe but felt a little hard. In the kitchen, I removed the stone and tasted the flesh. It was good, but only ninety-eight percent ripe. After a couple more days in the sun, the rest would be ready.

Two days later, I got the ladder and picked another apricot. It was really good but only ninety-nine percent ripe. Just a two more days in the sun were needed for perfection.

That Friday, our daughter drove home from Mariposa. She wanted to check up on me and how I was handling the challenges living alone.

“You are here on an auspicious day.” I proclaimed on Saturday morning. “Today we will harvest the apricots!”

We donned clothes suitable for fruit picking, found a cute little wicker basket for the dozen fruit, and a digital camera to record the event for Facebook. It was decided that we would take turns on the ladder with one picking fruit while the other photographed.

We trooped outside, stood under the tree, and looked up. I could not believe my eyes. Every single apricot was gone!

We looked at the tree from all sides. We took turns climbing on the ladder to look (without photos). We searched the ground and gardens around the tree. There were no apricots, no stones, no evidence that apricots had ever existed.

We put away the basket and the ladder then puzzled this mystery while sitting under the tree sipping cold sodas. It must have been the squirrels, we concluded. Those rotten scoundrels had made off with all my one hundred percent ready apricots.

In my imagination, I can see me checking the apricots every day then going into the house. Right after I go into the house, the squirrels creep out to check the apricots. They did not take any that were ninety-eight percent ripe. They did not take any that were ninety-nine percent ripe. As soon as the fruit was one hundred percent ripe, bang! They took every last one without leaving a trace.

I have apricots on the tree right now. They are still green so we are a long way from harvest. I have been watching for squirrels but they have stayed out of sight so far. I am determined to get the apricots before them.

I keep in mind that projects never come out exactly as initially envisioned. Whether it is a serpentine wall or an apricot harvest, life has a way of delivering surprises. My next project will be to design a little surprise for those squirrels!

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