Candy from Zorro’s Garden
(Amazing pool-to-garden transformation!)
By Candy Lesher-Rainey
Anyone who has flown over Phoenix knows, almost every other backyard has a pool. Arizonans hear it from realtors (not to mention family and friends) all the time: “If you ever want to sell your house, keep the pool.” But what if you don’t want to sell? What if you’re tired of pumping chlorine into the atmosphere, dumping gallons of precious water in daily to offset summer’s evaporation, then devoting hours and dollars each month to clean and maintain what has become a watery money-pit?
That’s how my husband David and I started the conversation a few years back about converting our pool into a garden. Then came the full-on drought in California. Be it laws, attitudes, politics or weather patterns, Arizona is often quick to follow their neighbor to the west, so we asked ourselves “how long before we have the same restrictions and conditions here?”
Then the worst thing a fur-parent could experience happened. Our super-active 9-year old Chihuahua Zorro had some sort of seizure, fell into the pool and drowned. The decision was made then and there – we would never lose another like that; just so sad it took such a heart-wrenching tragedy to move us forward.
Researching pool removal, we found a broad spectrum of pricing and techniques. The majority of companies we checked with insisted they’d need to first tear down a portion of our back block wall to get their heavy equipment into the yard. Then we would have to hire someone to rebuild that wall. And of course, for them to have room to operate that equipment, we’d need to move (or remove) a few of our fruit trees. Discouraging news, but we were committed to get this done.
Then in a chance meeting, our son-in-law met an owner at Superior Pool, a small, established, family-owned pool company, who also does pool removal. They proposed to do the project using manual labor only, utilize our existing front and back gates, and make the process less disruptive on multiple levels. Better yet, their quote came in well under those “big equipment” companies.
Game on! The following week, I got a permit from the City of Tempe (very polite and helpful staff at the City deserves a mention). Superior began the very next day, saw cutting big, wide channels in the bottom of the pool for drainage. The concrete removed to form those channels was stacked alongside the cuts, so when the inspector checked to insure sufficient drainage, he could see how much of the bottom had been opened up.
The City inspector was happy, so the following day demolition began. After watching them for an hour or so, we shuddered that we had even joked about how much money we’d save if we just did it ourselves. There is no way we (our backs, or our marriage) would have survived. That is brutal work but these guys were pros, and some of the hardest workers we’ve ever watched.
We had marked the cool decking on the back side of each curve for saw cuts – keeping the forward and side decking next to the patio and leading around to the backside of the yard, as our walkway. Removing the rest would allow the pool-garden to merge with the back side of the yard. The crew jackhammered out the back and sides of both decking and pool, taking them completely down and out. It made for one big gaping hole in the yard.
Those large hunks of concrete, tile and rebar being jackhammered out were piled into the bottom as rough fill. Amazingly, the crew completed that laborious stage in only one, very long day; the most experienced of that crew personally manned the jackhammer the entire time. So much respect for that labor; once (when much younger), I tried to run a small jackhammer… Let’s just say I lasted all of 60 seconds and regretted it the rest of that week!
The following day, trucks with more rough-fill hunks of concrete arrived to stack in the hole, then crushed concrete was wheelbarrowed in and added up to within 18-20 inches from the top. Mechanically tamped down, this provides a firm base that would drain well – super important for future gardening. Last, we had 34 yards of organic potting soil delivered from Western Organics, which the crew spread over top and lightly tamped down.
VOILA! In one week we went from pool to ready-to-plant garden! Then there was the unexpected mental hurdle. Our involuntary reaction was NOT to step onto the new garden. Though our eyes saw an oval of potting soil – our brains were trained to see a pool, so it kept screaming – you don’t walk on water! It took a week or so for us to break that spontaneous reaction; it took the dogs even longer.
It has been two months now since the transformation was completed – and there isn’t a day we aren’t delighted with our decision. We jumped in and fully embraced the opportunity; until now our gardening consisted of either adding a new fruit tree or simple container gardening. Greg’s encouraging webinars and readily shared wealth of information has given us a new boldness, and we’ve enjoyed these early newbie-gardener days – and fun adaptations we’ve made.
When the advice was to put berry baskets over new plants to allow them to breath and get sunshine, but keep birds out – I use a large, open-weave plastic basket bought at Dollar Tree, held down by inexpensive tent stakes from Harbor Freight. Not only do they deter birds but keep our other three rescue Chi’s from tearing up tender plants as they chase each other in what they believe is their new racetrack. For now, it gives our garden the appeal of a colorful Easter scene!
I’ve no idea if we’ve planted properly – but everything planted is thriving, so we’re rolling with it. To date there’s chard, eggplant, 17 heirloom tomatoes, 10 heirloom peppers, Mexican grey squash, Persian cucumbers, Easter egg radishes, tri-color bell peppers, guajillo peppers, Marconi peppers, two Goji plants, a few sunflowers and 12 still-small stalks of Indian dent corn (we’ll plant rattlesnake beans and sugar pumpkins around them once the corn is a little taller, for a 3-Sisters garden area). Everything except the Goji, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and heirloom peppers was started from seed.
It’s probably a little aggressive to begin with that much, especially since whatever I plant, my husband has to follow through with yet another tier of irrigation (and here in a month or so, shade screens). But the delight of seeing the seedlings popping their spindly little heads up through the earth for the first time is more exhilarating than we had ever imagined.
It’s only fitting that we’ve dedicated this pool-garden to the memory of our little Zorro. After all, it is teeming with vibrant life and is such a joy to nurture – just as he was…