Sealing the Shower

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Sometimes, for me, completing a project has been a matter of trial and error. I have been trying to get my shower to quit leaking for what seems like years—but was actually only a few weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun. I tracked enough water around as it was from my hot tub and shower. Water worming its way out through un-noticed cracks and holes, though, quickly became a problem. I tried one thing after another.

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The shower was a multi-piece fiberglass kit, and had been assembled and set in place by the house’s previous owners. However, the sides were not sealed at the edges, or fastened to the wall. They moved when you touched them, like loose sails on a boat. The un-fastened top edges worried me. A steamy bathroom meant condensation on the walls, and drips trickling downward, sliding effortlessly behind the floppy sidewalls of the shower stall.

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The very first thing I did was run a bead of construction glue behind the top edge of the shower sides, using a caulk gun. With masking tape, I secured the glued sides as closely to the walls as possible. After the glue had dried, and the shower sides didn’t gape open any more, I added a line of white silicone caulk made for baths and kitchens. Eventually, I planned to add some kind of attractive, waterproof trim to the top edges, for a more finished look. My first priority, though, was avoiding water damage.

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I put caulk around the bottom edges early on. I must have done something wrong, though, because the water leaked out at the bottom of the shower in rivers and cascades. One corner of the bathroom wall began to look soft and discolored, because I didn’t realize immediately what was happening.

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I have always been just completely awful with caulk. I put too much on, and could never seem to smooth it enough to be inconspicuous, let alone attractive. I hated working with caulk.  Silicone caulk was the worst, because on top of everything else, it was really, really hard to get off my hands. Since I had failed with a latex-based caulk, though, I decided that silicone was my next step. I forgot to buy mineral spirits to remove the caulk from my hands, but I wasn’t too worried because I didn’t actually plan on getting any on them.

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I ran the shower with the door closed, just to make sure, and found water escaping along the bottom of the door and the two glass panels.  I suspected that the loose bottom edges of the two fiberglass walls were contributing, though.

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I dried the shower’s bottom edges with a towel, and then with a paper towel. I even wiped them down with rubbing alcohol, and left them for hours. In the morning, I cut a small opening in the tip of the tube of caulk, and began. I did not realize that there was water lurking behind the scenes, waiting to destroy my efforts. As I applied the caulk, water oozed out, and I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, the caulk began to fail immediately. When the label says surfaces must be dry, they mean really, really dry.

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With water leaking everywhere, I peeled all of the failed caulk off the edges, scrubbed the surfaces clean with a plastic scrubber, and dried the shower as thoroughly as could. I squeezed the shower sides against the walls to force out the hidden water. I dried the surfaces with towels, and with paper towels, again. I tucked paper towels in place, checking them frequently to see if they were still soaking up water. This time, I waited two days, not running any water in the shower, to allow whatever water I missed to evaporate. That meant sponge baths for me, and washing my hair in the sink, but I was determined to have the surfaces dry.

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When I said I was terrible with caulk, I meant it. I had tried cutting the tip of the caulk tube to a very narrow diameter, and when that failed, cutting the tip shorter for a wider line. I tried using masking tape to keep the caulk in bounds, and various tools for smoothing caulk, from those actually intended for the purpose (there’s a thought!) to popcycle sticks, rubber spatulas, and finally my fingers.

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Sometimes, I remembered to wear latex gloves. Mostly, I didn’t. I kept paper towels or tissues handy, and used them to catch caulk I wiped away with my fingers. Often, I wiped away more than I left. I grew to hate caulking.  Part of the problem was that I found it difficult to put pressure on the caulk gun while moving it along at the same time. My hands were weak, and they shook. Squeezing the handle to expel the caulk was painful, and moving the tip smoothly just wasn’t possible.

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This time I was determined. I bought some waterproof rope caulk. That allowed me to pull off a narrow string of caulk that was perfect for my uses. If my surface was not dry, the caulk would not stick, but if it was, rope caulk provided a good starting point. I put it around the bottom of the glass sides and door, and then covered it with silicone caulk. That is not a typical use, but it has seemed to work. It also gave me the chance to really press the unfastened shower sides against the walls at the bottom, which regular caulk would not do.

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Because I was so awful with caulk, I used masking tape to limit how wide the caulk could spread. I ran my bead of caulk around the entire base of the shower sides. Then I smoothed the caulk, removing about half of it because that’s how bad I am with caulk. When I had done my best, I pulled off the tape. The still-soft caulk could be smoothed a bit more than if I had waited.

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Cleaning my hands was difficult. Silicone caulk left them unbearably sticky. I tried soap, butter (works with pitch!), cleaning powders, shower spray, and rubbing alcohol. Finally, I tried lamp oil. It worked, though I had to wash my hands sixteen times to get rid of the oil. Next time, I really need to remember to buy mineral spirits.

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Silicone caulk was supposed to dry for twelve hours, but I left it for 24. That meant two days while the water in the seams evaporated, and another day while the caulk dried. I wondered if people in town were beginning to avoid my unshowered person. I did wash, but I couldn’t actually shower. I desperately wanted this project to be over.

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Each effort I made brought improvement, and this effort seemed to stop the leaks on the two glass walls. The door, though was still a floodgate. I had resorted to keeping an absorbent throw rug on the floor below the door, but that was not a permanent solution.

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In desperation, I finally examined the bottom of the door. There was a funny little plastic piece that was (I assumed) supposed to keep water from escaping and it just wasn’t doing the job. It was also pretty scummy. I found that the flap was loose for several inches, creating a gap that had allowed water to escape. I pulled the whole flap off, praying that I wasn’t making the biggest mistake of my caulking life. Sometimes, I have had to take things apart to figure out how to fix them, but it always terrified me. This was no exception. What if I couldn’t get it back together?

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Fortunately, what I found was that the flap had been connected to the door using double-sided foam tape. I actually had some of that, so I pulled off as much of the old tape as I could, even using a knife to scrape off the residue. I scrubbed the surface with steel wool until the metal was bare and shiny Lying on the floor scrubbing that was uncomfortable, but I managed (barely) to get up again.

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Then I took the flap to my workbench and repeated the process, which had the added benefit of cleaning all the yucky scum off the plastic flap. That was much easier than lying on the floor in front of the shower.

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When the the door and flap were both clean and dry, I laid the tape on the back of the flap, and then carefully set it in place on the bottom of the door. The flap covered the gap between the door and the frame, which I hoped would keep the water on the inside. I ran a narrow bead of caulk along the top edge of the flap, to prevent leaks.

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I had to wait another twelve hours for the caulk to be dry and safe for water exposure. Then I ran the shower with the door closed. I watched. I waited. No rivers appeared. No puddles formed. I had succeeded. Even more important, I could shower!

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As I said, sometimes a project is a series of attempts, with each one building on the attempt that came before, until finally the problem is solved. This one was tedious, and took several tries, but when it finally worked, the sense of relief and accomplishment was huge. I could finally shower without the stress of worrying about leaks, rotting floors, and mildewing walls. Sometimes, you just have to keep on trying.

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Concrete in the Hole!

IMG_0102From the moment my daughter adopted two small dogs (separately) they have been comical, entertaining, affectionate, and life affirming. They have also dug holes. They dug up the flowerbeds, the gravel on the paths, and right through the plastic under mulch. It was no surprise, because dogs do that. I put chicken wire under bark, and carpet under gravel or bark in favorite digging spots, or near important plantings, to deter them. I fenced other areas.

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One digging spot, though, was under a large tree. I was reluctant to lay plastic for fear of harming the tree. A fence would have blocked their access to the dog house. I tried landscape fabric, but their little paws pulled it aside, exposing the soft, lovely, diggable dirt.

In the way a solution to one problem has always seemed to generate another, it all began with the cat. Initially, I fed the cat on the top of a deck railing. Then the dogs decided the cat was the enemy and should be harassed at every opportunity. I had fenced off the small area behind the garage to give the cat dog-free access to his house, so eventually I moved his food behind the fence. It was less convenient, but once I added fabric to the fence so the dogs could not see him there, he was at least able to eat in peace.

As soon as I put the cat food behind the fence, the dogs decided to dig under the gate, to eat the cat’s food. Or maybe the cat. They dug. I filled. They dug. I laid down an old throw rug. They pawed it out of the way, and dug. I laid a mosaic of 2-3 inch rocks. They dug them up. It was time to get serious.

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I still had one bag of concrete mix from my pond project safely stored in my garage, and I decided to use it. I considered using a form I had used for a lot of walkways. I was afraid the dogs would be able to dig out the smaller pieces, so instead I dug out a freeform space in front of the gate.

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I made the bottom as level as I could, piling the dirt I removed into plastic buckets for use in other places. Because the ground sloped, I couldn’t bring the cement up to the bottom of the gate. I could, however, block digging in front of the gate, and hope the dogs gave up.

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Once I had the hole cleared, with clean edges and a flat, firmly packed bottom, I added chicken wire for reinforcement. I had a scrap from building a fence panel, and since this was a small, flat area, it wasn’t too difficult.

IMG_0072I had kept the concrete mix inside the garage, safe from the rain. Because I couldn’t (didn’t want to) move the 60-pound bag, I just opened the end and scooped about half of the mix into a bucket. Taking it outside, I added water until I had a good consistency. I made a couple more trips for additional concrete mix, because I started with too much water. Eventually, I got a thick, consistent sludge of concrete.

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That was where I made my biggest mistake. I knew I needed to wear gloves when I worked with cement. I’ve known that since I was in my late twenties and lost all the skin on my hands. I was very careful when I concreted a pond, but this time, I was just sure I would not have to put my hands in the concrete. What I forgot was that whenever I have thought something wouldn’t happen, it has.  The concrete mix must have gotten just a bit damp. There were some lumps in it, and as I mixed it, I tried to break those up with my trowel. It wasn’t working, so without thinking I reached in and mashed up the lumps with my hands. Once I had done that, I found myself using my hands over and over. I knew I should have stopped and gone to get gloves, but I didn’t.

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I carried the bucket of wet concrete up the steps—and tripped. A few more purple spots on my knees wasn’t a concern. Those would heal, and anyway, I have always liked purple. I was more worried about spilling the concrete I only spilled a little, though, and I left it to dry, knowing I could pick it up later and carry it away with the buckets of dirt.

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Pouring the concrete into the hole was easy, especially compared to patting handfuls of concrete onto a vertical wall. I just poured it in, and used my trowel to smooth it out. A damp kitchen sponge helped to smooth out the surface even more especially as the concrete began to harden. I knew I wouldn’t use that sponge in the kitchen any more, but I rinsed it out and saved it for future projects.  I learned a long time ago to avoid washing concrete off into a household sink. Even diluted, I’ve been told it can settle into the curves of the drain pipe, and there isn’t a drain cleaner in the world that will clear that out. A hose and a bucket of water kept conveniently close was a better option.

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I had actually liked the look of the small rocks I had used unsuccessfully to deter the dogs’ digging. Because of that, I decided to embed some in the surface of the concrete. I thought about going the more usual route, by waiting until the concrete was halfway set, and then using a damp broom or brush to remove the top ¼ inch of concrete, exposing the gravel in the mix. I’ve done that in the past, and it left a nice graveled pathway. This time, though, I wanted the larger rocks.

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As a woman who has been divorced almost as long as she was married, I am not fond of romantic notions. I had read romance novels for many years, but a divorce after 23 years of marriage destroyed my pleasure in them. Instead, I began to read murder mysteries. For some reason, though, I still loved hearts. What can I say? I’m a sap. I saved heart-shaped rocks and slices of heart-shaped firewood. Heart-shaped jewelry and pillows and embroidery have continued to be my favorites. I love hearts.

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My bowl of small rocks included a number of white ones, and I knew what I wanted to do. One by one, I pressed the white stones into the cement, deeply enough for a slight lip of concrete to hold each one in place—and I set them in a heart shape. I filled in the heart with darker gray stones, and filled the rest of the stepping stone/digging barrier the same way. The heart did not stand out, and I had to look closely to see it, but it was there, and that made me happy.

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I had a little concrete mix left over, though, and I wanted to find a use for it. Left alone, it could get damp and harden. Besides, it was messy. Quickly, I checked an area where I had placed a few flat rocks as stepping stones. I cleared a space, sweeping away the wood chips down to the plastic underneath. Mimicking the shape of one of the stones I had used, I cut clean edges and packed the surrounding wood chips down. Then I filled the space with mixed concrete.

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My plan, initially, was to pick the stepping stone up after it hardened and turn it over, setting it in place somewhere else. However, my daughter had liked the appearance of the dog-proofing stepping stone so much that she asked me to use the small rocks on this stepping stone as well. After some trial and error, I filled in most of the surface with stones, leaving several inches in the center bare. Then, when the concrete was half set, I had her scoop up one of her small dogs and set its front paws into the wet concrete. The prints are not perfect—the concrete was still a little bit too soft—but they are clearly dog prints. Like the heart in the dogs’ stepping stone, the little paw prints made me smile. Since it had just rained, and the dogs were on the way for their walk, I wasn’t too worried about cement staying on her paws.

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I was worried about my hands after forgetting to wear gloves, though, so as soon as I was done, I used an ointment I keep on hand. It was originally intended for use on cows’ udders, especially in winter, when the scrubbing they get can leave them chapped. In North Dakota, winter weather often left me with dry, cracked skin, and that ointment was my solution. It rubbed some in as soon as I got cleaned up, and had tight, dry skin for several days, but nothing peeled, to my relief.

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The next morning, I went outside to check on my concrete creations.  The dogs had dug a new hole at the foot of the steps to their dog house.  I’m going to have to come up with a new solution–one that doesn’t involve concrete or plastic, because of the tree.  I may lay landscape fabric with chicken wire on top.  I’ll show those little dogs yet!

Signs and Sayings

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I found a new use for pallets. Even better, I found a use for scraps left over from pallets used in another project—so the new project didn’t cost me a nickel. It was even quick and easy to do.

I’d been feeling a bit low. Renewed health issues, increased pain, medical costs, and the fact that medication for one issue caused another to flare up had taken a toll. I felt overwhelmed and helpless.

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When that happens, I have learned to do two things. First, at night in bed, I pondered all the good things in life by making a list of the things for which I am grateful. I have thought about how glad I am that we can sleep in beds, with warm blankets and soft pillows, instead of sleeping on the ground. I have considered the benefits of electricity. I’ve recognized the beneficial impact of technology that allows us to talk to loved ones in far places, and record our thoughts on a screen without writer’s cramp. I have been grateful for medication that keeps my diabetes (a long-standing family curse) in check, so I can live a longer life than my grandmother. I have considered my good fortune in having transportation that can take me from place to place in minutes or hours. These thoughts have helped me to get through difficult times by re-focusing my mind. Lately, though, I needed something more.

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For many years, I have clipped interesting plaques and t-shirts from catalogs. Sometimes I have felt guilty, but I never wear t-shirts, and the plaques I have seen were not the size, style, or price I wanted. Recently, I found one that said, “In school, you are taught a lesson, and then given a test. In life, you are given a test that teaches you a lesson.” A second one read, “You have three choices in life: Give up, give in, or give it all you’ve got.”

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The first quote fit with my personal religious beliefs, and encouraged me to hang on. The second reminded me of how many things in our lives are choices. I could respond to my situation by giving up, or by fighting on through. I knew what my choice would be.

Having chosen these two sayings, I had to figure out what to do with them. Intricate embroidery was not the pleasure it had been in the past. Printing the words on paper didn’t feel significant enough. I wanted wooden plaques to hang in my little house.

I knew I had some pallet scraps. I had put most of them over by our back yard fire pit. Everyone here has a fire pit. When we searched real estate advertisements, a fire pit and an RV hook up were the most frequently mentioned features in this area. The number of bedrooms was a distant third. I sorted through the pallet scraps, and found several pieces that were long enough, and sound enough, to work for me.

IMG_0038I also found some narrow scraps that would work to fasten together the two or three pieces each sign needed. Once I had used my circular saw to cut the boards to the same lengths, my rechargeable nail gun fastened things together quite easily. I had built my plaques. Next I needed to paint them.

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The first thing I did was get out a yardstick and start measuring. The length of the plaques, and the number of letters and spaces, dictated the size of the letters—though I did have different sizes on these signs, making the important words bigger than the rest. I used a pencil to make very small marks to set my spacing. I even sketched in the letters. I really do try to do things right.

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The first sign, about tests, was going on a plaque made up of two fairly wide boards—as pallets go, at least. They were from the same pallet, and of the same type of wood, so their color matched.

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I pulled out the collection of craft paints and inexpensive brushes I kept on hand for projects. Initially, I did the “tests” plaque in black.  The lettering was purposely primitive, and I didn’t do anything decorative.  I wanted a rustic look–but something wasn’t right, so I set the plaque aside.  After a couple of days, I decided the black would not do. Sometimes I have to let things snuggle into my brain before I can really decide. I have always loved color, and I had not paid enough attention to that. I re-painted the plaque, putting the large words in green, and leaving the small ones black.

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The second plaque was a little more difficult. I had not realized how important matching the boards’ colors was going to be, and one board was much darker than the other. Having learned from the first plaque that I preferred colored letters, I chose a paint called “burgundy rose” which sounded nice—except it wasn’t burgundy. It was brown, and as soon as I saw it on the boards I wanted to complain about truth in labeling.  Instead I stomped around my apartment and grumbled.

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Worse than being a less-than-favorite color, on the darker board, the brown lettering was nearly invisible. Black would have worked, but I didn’t want black. I thought about a lighter color—maybe an icy blue I had in my collection—but that would not have shown up on the lighter colored board. Colors that would work on one board would not have worked on the other, and I didn’t know what to do—aside from making sure any future plaques had matching boards, of course.

Finally, I decided to try copper paint. It was shiny enough to show on both boards, and contrasted nicely with the rustic wood. It didn’t stand out as well as I had hoped, but I solved that problem by adding a little black shading. I had used shading in the past, and this time I chose to use it sparingly, placing thin black lines on the top and right sides of each letter. The lettering stood out then, and was more readable than it had been. More importantly, both signs provided encouragement and optimism, which can be critically important at times.

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Signs like these have helped me through difficult times. A sign proclaiming “Life is better at the beach” encouraged me through a difficult last year of teaching and living in North Dakota. That was more emotional than practical, though it has hung in a prominent place in my current home by the beach. A set of poster-sized signs said, respectively, “I don’t want to,” “I don’t have to,” “You can’t make me,” and “I’m retired!” When I was forced into retirement several years earlier than I had hoped, those signs helped me focus on the positives.

Some signs were made as gifts. For my oldest daughter, battling depression and feeling unlovable, I did a poster-sized quote from Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and loved more than you know.”

Other signs I’ve made were much more practical. When delivery men and contractors reported having difficulty finding my house, a white sign trimmed with forget-me-nots went up near the road, showing our street address. That solved the problem.IMG_0039

A matching sign, near the front door (which feels like the back door because of the way the house sits on the property) directed deliverymen to take any deliveries to the door of the garage.

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Another, near the garage, provides an arrow, guiding people making deliveries to my door. Because my son-in-law works nights, I needed to make it clear that deliveries did not go to the house, but rather to my apartment over the garage. I didn’t want deliverymen to wake him up for a package that, nine times out of ten, was not even his. These signs were hastily done, and not my best work—but they did the job.

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Later, I made a larger sign requesting, “Quiet, please: Night worker sleeping.” We lived in a quiet neighborhood, but deliveries were often made to the accompaniment of repeated horn blasts.

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Small signs in my herb garden helped me keep track of plants, even when three-inch banana slugs ate the parsley down to tiny nubs.

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More signs in the vegetable garden let me know which seeds had not appeared, so I didn’t re-plant the wrong ones and end up with sixteen hills of zucchini. These were just practical signs, attempting to make life (and sleep) easier for me and my family members.

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I have walked past homes that had paper signs, hastily scrawled. I’ve seen houses with commercially printed signs. I’ve seen signs much more attractive than mine. However, in the end, a sign needs to do what you need it to do, whether that is cheering you up or making life more comfortable.

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I’ll never be a professional sign painter. My signs are not always square. My lettering is not professional, and my flowers and other decorations are not gorgeous. That’s all right. Not everything worth doing needs to be done well. Some things just need to be done. Hmmm. Maybe I should make a sign saying that, and hang it in my work shop!

Peaceful Ponds

I finally got my pond to hold water, which left me with an ugly black hole in the ground. I took some time to recuperate, because that project had caused more physical pain than any other project. Ever. Then, one sunny morning, I started working on landscaping around the pond.

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My daughter had pointed out that if water got down behind the concrete, it might freeze and expand, cracking the pond. Just to be safe, and before I did anything else, I ran a bead of roofing tar around the edges of the pond. The concrete was painted with black rubber sealant, so a line of tar was not too obvious. A small disposable foam paintbrush worked to smooth out the tar—until I got frustrated and started using my finger. I have always felt like I had better control when I used my hands than when I used a tool. It has worked, though clean-up was sometimes tricky. The tar’s tapered edges kept most of the water out. I hoped.

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With that done, I gathered gravel and rocks to use. Some gravel had been salvaged when we planted a fruit tree in a gravelly spot, replacing the gravel with soil. It was very dirty, so I washed it in a bucket, stirring it with my hands as I rinsed. It felt like panning for gold: a lot of water washing away the stuff I didn’t want, to find the stuff I was after. Too bad it wasn’t actually gold! I did notice that while cleaning the gravel didn’t do wonders for my manicure, it did remove the tar from my fingers, solving that problem. Good thing, since I had not thought that far ahead. I really had intended to stick to the brush. I was left with a clean hand (relatively) and a bowl of gray crushed gravel.

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Months before, I had found a few bags of river gravel for sale at half price because the bags had torn. I’d snatched them up and saved them for this project. I also bought some bags of two- or three-inch gravel, which seemed more like small rocks. I didn’t quibble.

One thing that surprised me, years ago, was how different gravel looked when it had been washed. Fresh from the bag, the gravel looked gray and muddy—which it was. When I got it wet, I discovered a wide range of colors hidden under the coating of mud. Even when the gravel dried, it was much prettier than I had expected based on that first appearance.

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I had also gathered up a pile of larger rocks. In the past, I have mostly used rounded rocks, because that was what I had. I had even found a few on my new property. Those were my favorites, because they were free.  For this pond, my daughter also wanted to use broken slabs of rocks like the ones she saw in pictures when she researched building a pond. I didn’t discover any lying around, so I had to buy some. We found a large local landscape company that carried all kinds of rocks. They charged by the pound, so I tried to figure out exactly what I needed, then I picked through the piles of rocks until I found the perfect specimens.IMG_0025

With my gravel and rocks piled nearby, I took a good look at the pond. One very large flat rock went behind it, curving around two small plants. Since it sat at a slight angle toward the pond, I hoped to use it to form a small waterfall.

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Because I had a mixture of round and flat rocks, I had to think about placing them in a way that made the pond look natural and random—a task that is neither natural nor random. I set rocks in place, moved them around, sat and looked at the results, and then moved rocks once more. I will never complain about moving furniture again. I finally arranged everything in a way I liked. There really weren’t any rules, so I just did what I thought looked good.

Once I had rocks where I wanted them around the edges of the pond, I was ready to think about the details. Fitting the large rocks together was a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. There were gaps between the rocks that allowed the sight of things I didn’t want seen.

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Aside from use within the pond, to cover plastic or concrete (not a concern this time) filling the gaps was where the gravel came into play. A few pieces of gravel, fitted into those gaps, eliminated the sight of concrete edges, underlying plastic, or anything else that was not part of my plan. It was another one of those situations where random placement didn’t quite work. I couldn’t just scatter gravel. I had to choose pieces of different sizes and shapes to fill the gaps without piling up too much. It sounded harder than it was.

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To get the water moving, I had to install a small water pump I had bought at a local hardware store. There were lengthy directions, but when you boiled them down, they basically said to put the pump at the bottom of the pond, with both an attached length of clear tubing and the electrical cord leading up out of the water.

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They both came up at the side of the pond, running behind the big rock at the back. I scrounged up an exterior grade extension cord that was not orange, as so many of them are, but a nice, inconspicuous black. It was amazing what I found when I cleaned up my workshop.

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I suspected that an electrician would have recommended permanent wiring, with cords enclosed in conduit for safety. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I ran the cord along the back of the terrace where we had made the pond. That put it at the base of a fence, which I thought (hoped) would offer some protection. At the end of the terrace, I took the cord around a corner and over to the outlet on the back wall of the house. For most of the distance, the cord was buried under an inch or two of bark.

To be safe, I have always wrapped connections in plastic, taping it tightly with duct tape in hopes of keeping out any water that could cause a short. I also adapted disposable plastic storage containers so the connections could rest inside the closed container, protected from the rain. I even taped the container closed, all in hopes of avoiding excess moisture. Was it overkill? I didn’t know, but I felt better. This time, though, I bought some fancy waterproof tape and used that instead. It was much easier and not nearly so obvious. Of course, it was still possible for some rodent to chew on the extension cord, electrocute itself, start a fire to burn the fence and threaten my house and three others—and do it two inches away from the protected connection. I think I will manage to sleep at night.

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Sometimes, when I have finished the construction of a project, I’ve had fun doing little things to dress it up. I started by setting a stone on the largest piece of rock, to hide the hose and hold it in place. That stabilized my trickling waterfall.

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Next, I anchored small pieces of kapok under the edges of rocks, to cover areas high on the sides of the pond, which would never be underwater. The kapok, an organic cottony material, was rescued from broken furniture I had dis-assembled. The areas I covered didn’t look bad, particularly, but they weren’t pretty. Moss has always grown well in our rainy, western Washington climate, but I thought the kapok would improve the odds by absorbing and retaining water. There are ways to use a blended buttermilk, water, and moss mixture to start moss growing, but I was able to simply gather some up and move it.

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Over the years, I have done other things to enhance the appearance of ponds. A few water plants have helped, whether bought at a pet store or rescued from nearby lakes or streams. Sometimes, a flower pot can be filled with plants that like bogs, and set on a pond’s ledge, hidden behind a few extra rocks. I bought a metal crane sculpture a few years ago to set near a pond. A toad-shaped sprinkler and a couple of other frog statues were fun too. I liked to make ponds as natural as possible, and all of those things helped.

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With the pond waterproofed, rock edged, and prettied up, I pulled up a chair, invited my cat onto my lap for a cuddle, and enjoyed the sunshine and the musical sound of water trickling into my pond. I knew it was just a matter of time—very little time—before I would be hard at work on my next project. I only had six or eight in mind.

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Skirting the Issue

When I bought my house a couple of years ago, one of the things that appealed to me was the large front deck. I loved it, but I needed storage space, and that space underneath the deck was too good to ignore. Since there were no enclosing walls, though, storing things under the deck made the whole property house look cluttered and junky. From above, the deck was wonderful. It was a great place to sit and watch the squirrels run in (and between) the trees, and the bald eagles circle overhead. On days when the tide was high, I could listen to the ocean. It was the view from the driveway and street that was bad.

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I had to find a way to shield the under-deck storage from sight. I tried canvas tarps, and while it was an improvement over the sight of plastic tubs, cat carriers, rolls of fencing, and tarp-shrouded gardening equipment, it still looked pretty tacky. I thought about lattice panels or plywood, but the expense would have added up more quickly than my income did. I considered using branches to make my own panels, but weight and stability were important since I wanted to actually open whatever I used to enclose the area. Storage is not very effective if you can’t get anything out or put anything in—ever. I needed something simple enough for me to carry off, preferably without injury or too much pain.

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Then one day, I took a look at the stack of pallets I had set aside for projects. I had collected pallets for several months, because I knew I would find a use for them. Some people just use them for firewood, but I had bigger plans. I have never been able to burn things that have building potential, so I try to use the pallets in their original form–basically. After all, these were not just any pallets. Rather than random width boards with gaps of several inches between them, these were tightly set, and solid. They were also very uniform, which would help with appearance.

It said something about me, I decided, that I had become a connoisseur of pallets. Other people learned about fine wine, or delicate pastries, or sauces. I knew the ins and outs of pallets. I had set these pallets aside for a special project, and I had found the project. I would use pallets, trimmed to size, for skirting to enclose the space under the deck. That decision was the easy part. Figuring out how to do it was much more difficult.

I had noticed that places where people used pallets for fencing ended up looking like junk yards. I was hoping that by choosing matching, solidly built pallets, and then painting them, I could avoid that depressing look.

I was planning on using the pallets with the boards running vertically, almost like a picket fence, so I began by measuring the space where the first pallet was going to go. Since the pallets were 40 inches wide, I measured the height of the space at the beginning, and at 40 inches out. The house is set on a slight hill, so the pieces got taller as I moved across the front of the deck. The first pallet had to be 26 inches tall at the beginning, and 29 inches at the end. I had some trimming to do.

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At first, I set the pallets flat on the ground, and used my circular saw to cut them to size right were they were. The next two days were spent in hot showers, the hot tub, and bed, taking aspirin and occasional stronger things, to ease the neck and shoulder pain that activity had caused. I have not learned learn to think ahead to consequences of my actions, especially since I was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease in my neck. When I recovered, I set up a pair of folding saw horses I had gotten many years ago. They were solid and heavy, with sturdy metal legs and tops.

Although the pallets were heavy, moving them onto the sawhorses was better than cutting them on the ground. I trimmed off the ends of the boards, so that the 2×4 cross bar was at the top, level with the bottom edge of the deck. Then I marked and cut the bottom edge to match the slant of the ground. I notched the corners, removing the end of one of the four-inch boards, to allow enough space for the concrete pier blocks that supported the deck’s uprights. I thought about setting the pallets in front of those blocks, which would have put them in front of the deck. However, by trimming the pallets to a size that would fit inside the opening under the deck’s edge, I figured I was protecting the wood from at least some of the rain we get in this area.

Working between the uprights was a little awkward, especially since I have never been very good at measuring. No matter how carefully I measure, things tend to not quite fit. That proved true here, though I tried very hard. I ended up measuring twice, and cutting at least three times before the pallets fit as I wanted them to. Somehow, the old “measure twice, cut once” has never been true for me.

Eventually, I got the pallets cut the way I wanted them. The space between the uprights was wide enough for about a pallet and a half. Using the pallets I had, I was able to cut pieces to fill most of the front side of the deck. I needed one more pallet like these, with the close-set, heavy duty boards, to finish the whole front of the deck. I decided to wait and keep my eyes out at the locations where free pallets were offered, hoping to find more pallets matching those I had used.

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I had debated for quite some time about how to fasten the pieces in place. Originally, I was hoping to use plywood of some sort for this. For plywood, I had intended to use hinges at the top of each panel, and keep a board handy to prop open the panel when needed. I did consider hinges on the side, but I worried about the plywood panels sagging. I wasn’t sure. Then I checked the price of the sturdy, rust-proof hinges I was going to need. That took care of that idea. Finances are enough of an issue that I couldn’t afford hinges. With two pallet pieces in each space, the cost could easily have approached $100. I also had some concerns about how a pallet would react to being on a hinge. It was possible that the boards to which hinges were attached would pull loose, sag, or break. The only thing worse than no enclosure for that space would have been sagging structures that reverted to the junkyard pallet look.

In the end, I used screen door hook and eye sets, and basically hung the panels from the edge of the deck. That had several advantages. First of course, was cost. These cost pennies compared to the dollars per hinge I would have had to pay. I hung each pallet piece from two hooks. Even when I opted to put an extra set at a couple of corners, the cost stayed at about $20 for the whole project. I could also remove each piece separately, and set it out of the way. If I stored smaller items behind the smaller pallet pieces, and larger ones behind the full pallets, I could remove a single pallet piece to access whatever I needed.

There was more to do. Pallets, by their nature, are cheap and not particularly attractive. I had decided to paint the pallets white, partly to protect them from moisture, and partly for appearance.

Rather than painting the pallets as they hung in place, I opted to lay them down. I am a messy painter, and I didn’t want to get paint on the deck. I had also learned that paint that has dripped onto a gravel walkway looks every bit as bad as paint dripped on a sidewalk. Short of picking out every individual piece of gravel with paint, I would have been stuck with paint drips, and that would have detracted from the tidy panels I had worked to create. A long strip of plastic left from a previous landscaping project served as a drop cloth.

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I painted the top of each pallet, and the bottom edges of the boards. Then I painted the boards, using a four-inch house painting brush. I had to give the boards a second coat, because the paint soaked in so much. Then, with rain in the forecast, I had to move them into my workshop and give them a third coat. I probably should have primed them.

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Eventually, the boards were painted and the pallets were hung in place. Rather than seeing stored items (or plastic tubs of items) passers-by saw white picket-like panels. They hid what needed to be concealed, and actually looked quite nice. They may look even better after we paint the house. I used up quite a few of my pallets, and I learned what to look for in the future. I had been taking whatever pallets I found, and keeping a reserve of a half dozen for un-anticipated projects like this one. In the future, I may be choosier about the pallets I bring home—but I will keep bringing them home.

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A Beautiful Berry Summer

A Berry Beautiful Summer

One of the many things have always enjoyed about living in western Washington was the abundance of berries available for those who wish to pick them.

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For as long as I can remember I have picked blackberries in the summer. There were none in Utah, nor in North Dakota, though one could occasionally pick elderberries and similar fruits. It wasn’t quite the same, somehow. Moving back to Washington when I retired put me back into blackberry country, and I was delighted. Even when I visited the west coast to explore and make decisions about towns to consider as future homes, I went out and found a quiet road, and picked blackberries. I ate them plain, and as my husband had done, with milk and sugar in a bowl. I stirred them into ice cream, and cooked them down with sugar to pour over pancakes. The activity was nostalgic, and the flavor was the taste of childhood summers. My Australian son-in-law had never seen such things, but my daughter and I were delighted.

Blackberries were never the only treat in town, by a long shot. My daughter discovered one she called thimble berries. Some people have called them salmon berries, because they are a light orange color, though they resembled slightly flattened blackberries. They grew on a tall, hideously spiky plant, whose danger mocked people trying to pick them. On the other hand the blossoms were large, and a lovely bright pink.  The berries are sweet and pleasant, but so far we have only eaten them fresh.

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When I bought my house I was delighted to learn that the property was lined on two sides with ten- to twelve-foot tall wild mountain huckleberry bushes. Or trees. It depends on your definition. They bore small berries that resembled tiny blueberries, both in appearance and flavor. I have used them for pies, and for jams and jellies, as well as eating them fresh. I also found a few bushes of the red huckleberries I knew as a child. It’s always been easy to tell the two types of huckleberries apart, even in the winter, because the blue huckleberries had thick, leathery leaves, while the red ones have thinner, softer, light green leaves that fall off in the autumn.20170913_141839

During my childhood, I overlooked the berries found on salal bushes. We knew about salal, but assumed the berries were inedible. Salal had the same leathery leaves as wild mountain huckleberry, but they were four or five inches long, rather than an inch long, like the huckleberry leaves.

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Salal covered the ground when I was a child, only occasionally adopting a taller shape. Maybe that was why we ignored the berries. In the spring, salal made pretty pinkish flowers in graceful lines, much like lily of the valley. Berries formed as the summer progressed, and though they looked like blueberries, we did not trust them. I later learned that they were edible, but not sought after because the flavor was so bland: mildly sweet, but with no distinctive flavor. They could be used for pies and preserves, but they didn’t taste like anything much. However, they have been really good for stretching a blackberry or huckleberry harvest. A mixture of half salal berries and half blackberries or huckleberries made pies that no one questioned.

Even my daughter’s dog has learned to appreciate—and pick—the berries in our area. On his walks, he strains at the leash until he is allowed to approach the berry bushes and gorge on salal and blackberries. He is a very smart dog!

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Blueberries grew well on the Washington coast, and my mother picked them at U-pick farms throughout my childhood. We had blueberry pancakes all year long. My neighbors here have planted some in their yard, but I have not—yet. I did find a U-pick blueberry farm, and like my mother before me, I have gone there. The berries mostly went into pancakes or muffins. I’ve never had so many I was willing to use them for jams and jellies.

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Still, blackberries are the most common berry, and since they grow wild they are free. There are actually quite a few different types of blackberries, too, and in my younger days I could identify all of them, and describe their advantages and difficulties. For example, although they were all wild, what everyone called “little wild blackberries” are the most prized, and the most difficult to find. The vines creep along the ground and produce smaller berries than some of their larger and more aggressive cousins. It used to take a long, long time to fill a bucket with them, but if I did, I could make a pie that seemed free of seeds, because they were they were so small that you didn’t notice them. Tiny wild blackberries have always been the most sought after of them all.

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Larger berries, like the Himalayas and Cascades, are much easier to find. They grow in great, arching mounds along road sides and in vacant lots—and in backyards, where they can become a problem with their fast-growing habits. The berries are much larger, and sweet when they are soft and ripe. The seeds, however, are large and hard, so these are better for jelly or juice than for pies—although I have made pies from them and survived the seeds just fine.

On the other hand, I have clipped, dug, and sprayed the larger plants for years, in my distant youth, only to have them come right back. There was a large patch of the Himalayas in my back yard when I moved in here, and I have been picking them regularly and freezing them. I have begun trying to control them, by cutting the plants all the way back, because they have started to claim the area under the clothesline, which can be hazardous to my health when I am trying to hang sheets out to dry.

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I have always avoided picking berries near busy roads, for several reasons. First, dreams of being mowed down by passing vehicles. Hey, it could happen. There has always been the risk of berries having been sprayed with weed killer, too. More seriously, though, I have read articles detailing the amounts of air pollutants blackberries have absorbed from passing traffic. New technology may have made vehicle exhaust less toxic, but the chemicals in exhaust were there, and I didn’t want to eat it. I’ll put up with a few spiders and bugs, and I’ll rinse away the occasional bird dropping, but chemicals from exhaust are another matter. Besides, people could see me!

Berries from our back yard were safe, of course. I found a large patch on a hiking path near my favorite fishing spot, too, and I have visited it several times. It’s back in the woods, and seems safe, as well as private. Each time I have picked berries, I have brought home about a gallon of berries. Last week, I also brought back something very unpleasant on my shoes, so bears or coyotes may have been enjoying the fruit as much as I do. Blackberries are a favorite food for wildlife, as well as for people.

Picking blackberries is a little like giving birth. There is a lot of pain, but the rewards are so great that you forget–until the next time. The bushes have fooled me before. They dangle clusters of deep purple berries, making them seem so very accessible, and so safe. Once you begin picking, though, the vines attack. I have decided that they know what you are doing, and believe you are stealing from them. They snatch, and grab, snagging clothing and wrapping around hands. Blackberry bushes have always had thorns, and I have always forgotten from one year to the next how vicious they were. There were large ones that sliced. There were small ones that caught in my skin and stayed there. Some people have worn gloves to pick berries, to protect themselves. I tried it, but gloves just made me drop too many berries. I have known some people who wore fingerless gloves, so they had the dexterity they needed, but still protected their hands from the thorns. It never seemed effective to me. Besides, I also got scratched on my arms and legs, and sometimes my neck, because those vines reach out and grab anything they can. The bigger thorns have actually torn clothes, so I learned to wear old, sturdy clothing to pick blackberries. I also wore heavy work boots, so I could push down any vines that were really in my way.

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In the past, I have brought berries home, washed them thoroughly, and then frozen them in large food storage bags. When I finished picking for the year, I would pull bags out of the freezer. People have used different methods of extracting the juice from the berries for jelly and syrup. My husband’s grandmother mashed the berries, and drained them by putting them in a fabric bag she hung from a cupboard door. I used to have a steam juicer that used boiling water to steam the berries so they released their juice. It trickled out through a piece of clear plastic hose. The jelly I made that way was so clear that light shone through it, and the juice looked like jewels. I made syrup for pancakes or ice cream by cooking equal parts of sugar and juice until the sugar was dissolved. Then, since I packed school lunches for my children, I made jelly. Dozens and dozens of jars of jelly. I experimented with using a handful of not-quite-ripe berries in each batch, because those unripe berries had enough pectin to make the jelly set up. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it did not—which was okay, because that meant more syrup.

Lately, my back yard has smelled of ripe blackberries. Huckleberries are waiting to be picked, too. I picked berries, and then spent a week picking stickers out of my hands, and spreading antibiotic cream on scratches and stab wounds. I didn’t enjoy the scratches. Somehow, though, the jelly and syrup tasted all the sweeter because of the sense of accomplishment I felt. I sacrificed for those berries, and that made them even better than they would have been. Maybe that is why store-bought berries never taste quite as good

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Not Walden’s Pond

I have always loved having water features in my yard. The sound of trickling water is soothing, and helps me relax. Besides, ponds are pretty, and you hardly ever have to weed them.  Or mow them or paint them.

That’s why, not long after moving into my current house, I made two ponds in my back yard. Actually, my daughter made one, and I made the other. Hers was the most professional, because she did a lot of research. It was almost three feet deep, with one big vertical wall, and a series of ledges and shelves. It was beautiful, but it turned into a nightmare.

I dug my own ponds, because the hard plastic pond liners you can buy cost money. I actually did try one years ago. They look so simple, but what the manufacturers never said, and what I had to discover for myself, was that it was very difficult to get the rigid pond liner level. I followed the instructions, but trying to get the sand-lined hole exactly right so the water was level in the pond was harder than I expected. I never did get it quite right, and the off-level water line bothered me for years. I finally moved away.

In the past, I had used concrete for ponds, but as soon as I saw the shape of this one, I knew heavy duty plastic was a better option, because it was flexible. I would never try to use concrete on it, because there was no way concrete would stay in place on the vertical walls. It was out of the question, I said, knowing that every single thing I said I would never do ended up happening. I was never going to be overweight, after all, or have a chronic illness that required assistance from my children, or lose a job, or go to graduate school, or get a divorce. I really should have known better than to say I was never going to use concrete on that pond.

By the way, like most people, I tend to mis-use the term “cement.” Cement is actually a fine gray powder, to which gravel and sand must be added for durability. Concrete is what they call it when those ingredients have been added. I had to train myself to ask for concrete mix at the building supply store, rather than cement mix.

The pond worked well for a number of months. I put goldfish in it, partly because I liked to watch them, and partly because they eat mosquito larvae, which seemed like a good idea to me. We have enough mosquitoes without giving them unfettered breeding grounds. Small goldfish can be bought for about twenty cents apiece, so that was a small price to pay.

In time, unseen damage made the pond leak. It probably didn’t take much to puncture the plastic. A stone that was dropped or that shifted because of gravity, a footstep taken in the wrong place, or a curious dog’s claws could have led to leaks. When I found that the pond only stayed full for a day, I knew I had to do something. The small puddle that remained in the bottom was not enough to keep goldfish happy, and the lower water level left plastic exposed. Using black plastic is one thing: looking at it another.

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My next step was a hard one—literally. I had to admit that I needed to concrete the pond, and I was not looking forward to it.

Like so many “re-do” projects, the first step was to clear away what was already there. I transferred the goldfish to another pond, and pulled out the gravel and stones. They were going to be used again, but not until concrete was in place and thoroughly cured. A few mushy, smelly, rotting leaves had settled in the bottom of the pond, and I removed those as well.

Next, I drained the pond using a siphon hose, and then wiped it out. I didn’t even try for immaculate. Professional concrete workers would not have approved of my techniques, but I had done this before, successfully, so I was cautiously optimistic.

I had learned not to carry 60-pound bags of concrete around. I’m not sure anybody should. When I brought home four bags of concrete mix, I just tipped them out of the car onto the driveway. They were safe for the moment. We were in a dry weather spell (we have those, even in western Washington) but concrete will harden if it gets damp, and heavy fog, or morning dew, or a bird breathing in the vicinity, has left me with far too many useless rectangular blocks of concrete. I tried using them, but they are too big, too irregular, and too breakable.  Tarps and plastic never helped protect the concrete mix as much as I thought they should have.

Keeping concrete sound and free of cracks requires reinforcement. I did not use any on my first pond thirty years ago (well, okay, thirty-five years), and it developed a huge crack. From professional concrete workers, I learned that metal reinforcement, like re-bar, could prevent cracks. That wasn’t practical in an irregularly shaped project like a pond, so I had tried chicken wire, and found that it worked quite well. Lining this particular pond with chicken wire was difficult, which only increased my worry about the concrete.

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I pushed the first piece of chicken wire down into the lowest part of the pond. It was quite a reach, at three feet deep. In the end, I had to step into the pond, and push the chicken wire down with my foot. Working my way up the sides, I wrapped chicken wire around the inside of the pond, pressing it in place as closely as possible. I had to stop for a minute, to clean and bandage slices the chicken wire had left on my hands. I had thought about wearing gloves, but I have always felt clumsy with them, so I only wear them when I absolutely have to—or when I have to touch something really gross. Putting chicken wire in place didn’t seem like a time for gloves, and I paid the price.

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It was time for concrete. Because I cannot carry the full bags, I took a small bucket out to the driveway and filled it with concrete mix. It held about 15 pounds, which I was able to carry to a spot near the pond. I filled another bucket with water, and gradually added it to the mix, stirring with a garden trowel. I did wear rubber gloves to work with the concrete, because many years ago I lost all the skin off my hands when I did not. Cement is very alkaline, and I prefer to keep the skin on the palms of my hands. .

I mixed the concrete to be on the dry side, and I hoped that would not make it less durable than it should be. Scooping handfuls from the bucket, I covered the bottom of the deepest section, and gradually patted concrete into place up the walls—several times, because it tended to fall off or dribble down. When I hit the first ledge, things got easier, but only for a minute, because above the ledges were more vertical walls. The biggest one was almost three feet by two feet, and was the hardest part of the project. Eventually, I got the wall covered, and then the rest of the pond.

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Providing a good finish required a lot of smoothing and rubbing. I knew that. However, I was leaning over a terrace wall, and down into a three-foot-deep hole. It was not just awkward, it was painful. Between the difficult vertical surfaces, awkward angles, and growing fatigue, I was not able to finish the surfaces as well as I would have liked, so I was not happy with the result. It was rougher than it should have been, and I worried about ice getting in and breaking the concrete.

The truth was, I had felt that I needed to finish all of the concrete in one day to avoid having a seam between one day’s concrete and the next. I pushed hard to get it all done, but I got so tired I couldn’t keep working. I was also afraid of touching some of the difficult areas, for fear that concrete I had finally gotten to stay in place would come loose. I knew the job was sub-standard. It was the best I could do, but even for a half-baked project, it just wasn’t good enough.

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As a solution, I bought some black rubberized paint-on sealant. I let the concrete cure over several days, until the color was a uniform light gray. Concrete gives off heat as it dries, and I didn’t want moisture to collect under the rubber surface. Once the concrete was cured, I painted on the black rubberized paint. It was non-toxic once it dried, though it smelled like chemicals when it was wet. After 24 hours it became durable and permanent. I had used it before in other situations, and it was pretty tough. I let that dry for a few days, and applied a second coat. After that, I felt fairly confident about the pond’s ability to hold water, and survive the winter weather.

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I do have one more pond to re-do with concrete. It is a wider pond, but shallower and without the huge vertical walls that made this one so difficult. It will be easier to do. However, I know now that I need to get plenty of rest the day or two before I start that project, and I need to take it easy on myself so I can do a better job finishing the concrete. If I am going to use the black rubber sealant, maybe it won’t be a bad thing to take two days to finish the concrete. Or, because of the simpler design, maybe I won’t need two days.

After the ponds are both finished, I will work on landscaping around them. That’s a whole new story, and a much more enjoyable one. I have two more places where I am tentatively planning ponds. They really are a lot of work, so I will be cautious in approaching the tasks. If I have two ponds, that might be enough. On the other hand, if I do new ponds, I may try doing the concrete from the beginning, without using plastic at all. I’m not sure how the concrete would work on bare dirt, but that’s how sidewalks are done, so it must not be too horrible. I will think about all of that—after I stop dreaming about trying to get concrete to stick on the vertical walls of this particular pond. First, though, I’m going to take a little time to enjoy one pond. I’ll move on later.