Adventures in Yard Work

Weeding in Western Pennsylvania

Adventures In The Yard

I scramble over the crest of the hill, trailing a spool of electrical wire behind me and drop to the ground next to my wife.  I cut the wire and attach the loose ends to the terminals on a small box.  

“Clear?” asks my wife.

I raise my head to peer over the crest of the hill, “Clear!”

“Fire in hole!”, shouts my wife and twists a handle on the small box. 

There’s a muffled pop and we wait a few seconds for any dust to settle.  We stand and walk over the crest of the hill to survey what destruction we have wrought.  It’s heartbreaking.  There are a few cracks in the ground extending from the hole where the stick of dynamite had been placed.  Rising above the sparse patch of grass is the dandelion we had hoped to eliminate.  Swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze, it taunts us, like a symbolic middle finger.  “Hah! Is that the best you’ve got?”, it seems to say.  My wife and I look at each other, steely determination etched on our faces, “More dynamite!”, we both shout.

Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a bit here, but the hard clay soil made doing any yard work at our western Pennsylvania home a daunting task.  We didn’t have to resort to dynamite to remove dandelions, in Pittsburghese “Dandy Lions”, or other weeds.  But one couldn’t just yank them out of the ground, you would end up with just a handful of weed tops. Even after a rainfall, the weed roots would remain steadfastly imbedded in the ground, essentially needing to be dug out.

Speaking about digging, the clay soil was near impervious to the sharp bladed spade.  Within a year of moving to our house, we began a series of landscape projects involving moving some existing trees and shrubs and planting new ones.  Compared to getting rid of the weeds, it was surprisingly easy to dig up an existing item, planting it was another story.  Once a new planting site was determined, the soil would have to be loosened by chopping at it with the blade of the shovel, then scooping up and dumping the loose clay.  I wore the point off of one shovel digging in this manner, turning it into a flat bladed spade.  I broke two other shovels. To make the job of digging easier we would loosen the soil with the sledgehammer end of a maul and a pointed pry bar, then scoop out the clay.  We eventually invested in a rototiller.  Before replanting anything, we would amend the soil with peat moss to encourage root growth.

Digging in this soil would uncover some interesting artifacts from the region’s past history.  We would find coal, ranging in size from small chips to large chunks.  When we closed on our house, we were urged purchase a peculiar item called “mine subsidence insurance”.  From the Bureau of Mines, we discovered our home rested about 350 feet above the abandoned shafts of the Penn Mining Company which had closed in 1923.  Coal mining had been so extensive in the region, there were abandoned mines everywhere.  On occasion, the old shafts would collapse, shifting the soil above it.  Roads would be closed and buildings condemned due to severe subsidence. We would constantly be on the lookout for big cracks in our yard or, even more ominously, in our foundation.  Between the clay and the coal, I believe we could have had a strip mining and pottery conglomerate.  

An interesting topographical feature of the region surrounding Pittsburgh is it is almost impossible to find any land that is naturally flat.  The nearby community of Level Green was anything but level.  Most of the flat areas of land were man-made creations, and these efforts sometimes had a deleterious impact.  For instance, our neighbors had decided they wanted an in-ground pool.  All of the homes at our end of the street had about a 20-degree slope so quite a bit of fill and leveling was needed to make the pool area flat.  When the project was completed, the new slope of their yard caused rainwater to flow down into our yard and give us a pool as well.  It also caused the roots of two trees and several shrubs to rot.  We were unable to plant anything in a 6’ x 15’ section of the berm we had created.  

It was tough work maintaining and caring for this hardscrabble yard, but we eventually had it looking quite nice.  After my wife had detailed the efforts in maintaining our yard to a co-worker, her colleague said, “Wow!  How many acres of land to you have?”  To which my wife answered, “Oh, about a quarter of an acre.”  Size wise, it was the smallest yard we ever had.  But work wise per square inch, it was the biggest yard we ever owned.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group

May 19, 2023

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Yard Work

  1. Great piece! Took me back to Syracuse, NY, which was also a landscape challenge, unlevel and clay with limestone… but lots of rain to soften things up. Digging here on the Cape is a breeze!


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