Up through the construction debris--the sawdust, the bent nails and the bits of stucco and concrete--came the fall-blooming crocuses, like some floral phoenix rising from the dust and dirt laid down by remodeling.
We're nearly finished with a small addition, and the garden has suffered, mostly from neglect, during the last three months of construction. As if to remind us that they were still there, up came the crocuses between the front stepping stones last week.
Remodeling tends to be an all-consuming project, even when someone else is doing the work. If you're not at Home Depot buying light fixtures or bathroom sinks, you're lying awake at night trying to figure out what color the grout should be between the tile or whether the pocket door to the dining area should be 3 or 4 feet wide.
In the meantime, the garden coasted, until those crocuses reminded us that it was time to start paying attention again and almost time to landscape around the new construction.
The contractor has been very careful of the garden and cut only a 10-foot-wide swath for scaffolding and materials, so most of the garden is intact.
And there's still plenty of garden. My wife and I spend a lot of time outdoors in the garden, so we didn't fill the yard with house as is too often the case in California. I've seen remodels that you can barely walk around, and I ask myself, "Why live in this glorious climate if you can't be outdoors?"
But after raising three children in a house with one bathroom and a kitchen smaller than most new closets, it was time to add on.
It would have been nice to have done this a little earlier in the game, but we really had to wait until the kids were off at college. Living through a remodel is tough enough when there are just two in the house, crammed into one small bedroom, living without a kitchen.
To make the loss of garden space less noticeable, I had let (cleverly, I think) some shrubs next to the house grow way too big. Then at the last moment, I took them out and substituted a room addition! It wasn't exactly a seamless switch, but one week there were big, bland shrubs and the next, new rooms. We hardly noticed the change.
We added only about 250 square feet, but that is enough to nearly double the size of the kitchen and our bedroom and add a new bath. Conversely, we subtracted only about 250 square feet from the garden.
By allowing the contractor some room to work, we were left with about 10 by 40 feet to landscape, and we still had a back garden more than 60 feet deep, full of roses, Japanese anemones, coneflowers, coreopsis, heliotrope and strawflowers, late summer flowers that bloomed through the whole process.
When the work outdoors was done, I was a bit surprised at how much debris ended up on the soil. I think the contractor was a bit surprised at the pile I made one weekend, of soil left over from the foundation excavation and soil contaminated with paint and stucco.
The building crew had taken most of it away, but a lot had simply gotten spread out on top of the old garden soil, raising its level to an unacceptable height while concealing all sorts of debris that probably wouldn't do the garden any good.
In this day of city-supplied trash cans, getting rid of excess dirt is no longer a matter of simply putting it out on the curb in boxes and bags, so you want to make sure you don't end up with more than you need after the contractor leaves.
You also don't want to be finding little shards of broken glass, rusty nails and sharp metal stucco lath as you dig in the garden.
To find out what all those bits of stucco and concrete would do to the garden, I called soil scientist Garn Wallace, who has tested many kinds of soil at his Wallace Laboratories in El Segundo, to see what kinds of changes I, or any other remodeler, might expect (you simply can't get rid of it all).
I should have called him earlier, because his first piece of advice would have saved me a lot of digging and sifting. He suggested putting down plastic around the walls to catch the excess stucco and concrete. If you don't do this, he said, remove the top two inches of soil near the building along with the debris.
Both concrete and stucco secrete chemicals that make a soil extremely alkaline at first. Stucco has a pH of 10 to 12.
Luckily, a good rainy season or lots of irrigations will leach much of this out of the soil in a year's time, so the soil ends up with a pH of about 7.7, but for a few years, the soil right next to a new concrete foundation will be too alkaline for azaleas or camellias.
He even suggested a simple way to check the alkalinity. Pour a little battery acid or even vinegar on the soil and see if it fizzes. If it does, it's still too alkaline.
To help the leaching process, he suggested adding some gypsum and soil amendments to speed drainage, which I have done.