Murphy’s Law of Yard Work

I suppose everyone is familiar with Murphy’s Law, commonly stated as “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Numerous corollaries and similar “laws” have been proposed—so many that for several years Price/Stern/Sloan published page-a-day “Murphy’s Law” calendars with content from Arthur Bloch. I seem to have had those calendars in several years, judging from the dusty laminated pages tacked to the bulletin board next to my desk. But one of my favorites is one that has been retyped onto an index card, the entry from April 12, 1997:

Westheimer’s Rule

To estimate the time it takes to do a task, estimate the time you think it should take, multiply by two, and change the unit of measure to the next highest unit. Thus we allocate two days for a one-hour task.

This rule was proven on a couple of days in early August. I’d been working for some time at the back of the Old Library property, but I had noticed that a lot of tall weeds had grown up between the stones in the dry-stone retaining wall in front. So I thought I’d spend a few minutes—maybe half an hour—pulling them up. If I’d known I’d end up spending over six hours weeding, raking, and sweeping the wall and sidewalk, I might have saved the project for another day. And in fact another day was required to finish the job, as I had finished the long part of the wall south of the library entrance but hadn’t touched the shorter portion north of it. I had figured on 1–2 hours for that, and it took 3½. So in the last analysis the original half-hour job took two days!

After the passage of several weeks, the weeds were back—not as many or as tall, but still needing attention. As mentioned in my previous post, I’d tried spraying them with vinegar. This had no noticeable effect. Now, however, armed with a new weapon—the edger, I figured I could do at least part of the job without manual labor. This is where Murphy’s Law comes in, I guess, as I wasted a lot of time trying to get the edger to do what it was supposed to do. I finally realized that it had run out of string. I had a backup spool, but I was a little leery of replacing it without reference to the book of instructions (calling it a “book of instructions” is generous, since it’s just one big folded sheet with a lot of line drawings accompanied by cryptic explanations in several languages). As it turns out, the job is dead simple and almost impossible to mess up, but I managed to do so, so that slowed me down for a while longer.

And then the wheels kept falling off. The wheels can be attached in any of three ways, one for edging and two for using the trimmer as a “mini mower.” My husband and I struggled with the “instructions” to finally figure out all three variants and concluded that it would never be worth the trouble to move them from the edger position. (In fact, only once have I attempted the task of converting the edger to a trimmer and back, and that was challenge enough.) Even though I knew, in principle, how the wheels were supposed to go on, it took me forever to actually do it properly—and then they fell off again. Apparently a loose screw in the bracket they slide onto (now fixed).

As previously documented, I have a historical difficulty in “Getting to Job 1,” and yesterday was no exception. By the time I’d amused myself by edging most of the street side of the sidewalk and raking leaves down from the retaining wall and the grass above it, then sweeping and gathering up all this debris. I had little time left to attack the actual planned weeding. But I had accomplished the satisfying task of edging along the top of the wall, where for some distance there is actually a concrete “curb.” So the wall already looks a lot neater even without weeding, which I’ll get to on my next visit, when I hope it will be cooler. I’d gotten used to working in the shade, and a lot of my work had been on hands and knees (pulling up camphor and smilax roots). Yesterday, working much of the time in full sun, standing up, I remembered why my earlier workdays had left me so totally exhausted!

The one small stretch of wall that I actually weeded

The sidewalk edged on both sides

Part of the “curb” at the top of the wall

A parting shot of the library entrance, where I’d swept all the leaves off the steps

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Return to Yard Work

On Monday, October 11, I returned to work at the Old Library for the first time since September 13. The reason for my absence was simple: on September 16 and again on September 30, I had cataract surgery, first on my left eye, then the right. After the surgery, I was not supposed to bend from the waist or lift heavy objects, which pretty much precluded any of the work I’d been doing. This prohibition was in effect for only two days after each surgery, but I was also having to put drops in my eyes three times a day, and my husband was trying to treat me like an invalid, and it seemed like all I wanted to do was nap, so I resigned myself to taking a break.

I won’t pretend that this enforced leisure wasn’t welcome. I’d gotten kind of burnt out on the work I was doing in the back, having concluded that camphor and smilax are just entirely ineradicable (at least with hand tools), and I rather enjoyed just lying around reading, though that in itself was a new adventure since I now have to put on reading glasses to read instead of taking off my distance glasses!

So it took a bit of heavy persuasion to psych myself up for going back, but I had an extra inducement: in September, for my birthday, my husband had given me (at my request, I hasten to note) a battery-powered string trimmer/edger. I had noticed on my daily walks that while I had been concentrating on the back of the property, the ground cover next to the sidewalks had taken advantage of my absence and inattention to stretch out to cover the walks, as shown in the Before photos below.

Front walk before

Side walk before (I think this was after the first edging pass but before raking)

I am far from becoming an expert at using the edger, but, having already butchered all the edges in our yard, I thought I’d take the device up to the library, where any change is an improvement! What a joy that proved to be! It is incredible how much easier it is to rake a walk when it has been edged first because the vines do not grab the rake. I did have to go back over some stretches several times to completely sever the vines, but it was still much more efficient than trying to use shears or rip them out by hand.

Raking was also much more efficient. Raking pine straw is always satisfying because it clumps together and is easy to pick up in a bundle. But that couldn’t hold a candle to the satisfaction of stretching out the rake to grab some pine straw and have a yard-long mat of tangled vines and pine straw come all at once! Picking it up to put in the tub was just the same: the hard part was not picking up an entire pile in one bunch. The photo below shows some of the piles of debris before they were picked up.

I had intended to make a short day of it, but of course one thing kept leading to another, and I ended up edging parts of the sidewalk along Summit and Magnolia as well. I also took time to scrape a large quantity of moss off the steps down to the curb. And I raked and swept part of the handicapped-access ramp up to the front entrance (not pictured).

Front walk after

Side walk after

Front sidewalk after

Final debris pile ready for pickup (it was collected Wednesday)

I had intended to get back to work on the stone retaining walls as well, but that will be a task for another day (tomorrow). I did experiment with spraying some of the weeds with vinegar to kill them, and I will be interested to learn whether this “helpful household hint” actually has any validity. Even if the weeds are dead, I’ll still have to pull them out, but perhaps they’ll come more easily.

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Working with Critters

When you start digging in dirt, it’s no surprise to encounter subterranean creatures. When I started work on the north side of the Old Library property, I encountered quite a few animalcules that I assumed were centipedes or millipedes, but I didn’t know which. Googling “centipede vs. millipede” turned up several sites happy to enlighten me. This page explains it succinctly:

While centipedes have one pair of legs on every body segment, millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment, Live Science reports. The position of their legs is probably the easiest way to visually distinguish them from one another. Centipedes have legs that point away from their bodies, while millipede legs point down at the ground. Centipede legs are also typically longer than those of a millipede.

Beyond their appearance, you can also tell a centipede from a millipede by their behavior. If you uncover an unidentified many-legged creature under a log or pile of leaves and it scatters away, that would be a centipede, according to Live Science. If it rolls up into a ball and remains still, it’s a millipede.

When the animal is in motion (which they seem always to be), it’s impossible to tell how the legs are paired, so I look at what direction they point. If further in doubt, I put a finger in the animal’s path to see whether it will curl up. (I am careful to do this only when wearing gloves: a centipede bite can reportedly be as bad as a bee sting.)

In addition to these arthropods, when I was working around smilax roots I usually found dozens of tiny snails, all dead as far as I could tell (or if not dead, at least doing a very convincing job of playing possum). At least I thought they were snails; later I wondered if they might have been rolled-up millipedes, so when I encountered them again, I looked more closely: definitely snails!

On the south side of the property, I still see centipedes and millipedes but also many more earthworms. I’ve found out a little about earthworms as well but still have a lot more to learn. I haven’t paid close enough attention to them to try to identify specific species, but this would be interesting. According to the USDA, earthworms “provide channels for root growth,” so I suppose it’s no surprise to find them around the camphor roots I am pulling up. And I suppose I’m seeing just the tip of the iceberg, as the USDA site says that a square yard of temperate woodlands (a good description of the Old Library site) will have 100–500 earthworms.

I try to be considerate and inconvenience the worms as little as possible, and for the most part they just phlegmatically glide away, though perhaps with a justifiable air of reproach (“What? Not this again!). Some, however, leap frantically into elaborate contortions; there is something called a “jumping worm,” so perhaps they are this type. One day I kept turning up so many worms at once that I just started picking them up and dropping them in an already-cleared area where they would presumably be safe. I don’t suppose the worm’s tiny brain is capable of much thought, but if it were, I wonder what it would have thought about being abducted by aliens and then dropped into an arena full of other earthworms!

Earthworms pose even less threat than centipedes, but the other day I got into an ant bed, and I learned the hard way that the ant’s fight-or-flight reflex is rather different from an earthworm’s. At least I assume it was an ant that bit me on the top of my thigh. It was quite a shock, and I was surprised to feel the sting and then chills running all the way up to my eyebrows! No permanent harm was done—I can’t even see where the bite was—but I was a bit more cautious afterward to avoid the areas where I had disturbed ants.

Nothing underground, however, is anywhere near as bothersome as the insects above it. Although the only exposed parts of my body are my face, ears, and neck, and those are liberally coated with insect repellent, I am still plagued by gnats and mosquitoes buzzing around. My father used to claim that a hat would discourage gnats. That may be true of a broad-brimmed hat, but a ball cap just doesn’t get it, and I am constantly waving around my head and saying, “Go away!” As if that would do any good!

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Unveiling the Author

If you’ve read the “About” page at this site, you know a little about me, and my profile picture (somewhat out of date) is all over the Internet, but my new friend artist Rachael Ellzey, who lives next door to the Old Library and has taken an interest in my work, thought I should include a photo of myself, preferably in my yardwork uniform, somewhere on the blog. So I invited her to snap some shots, and here’s one of the results.

The photos were taken in the back (southeast) corner of the property, where camphor and especially sparkleberry have been allowed to run wild, creating a rather byzantine background! (It was actually a lot more tangled before I cut out some of the thick vines that were in my way.)

Rachael had been intrigued by my posts about “buried treasure” on the property and brought out a strange object she had found in her yard. She thought it might be some kind of bone, but in retrospect we decided it was too light to be bone, and the exposed cell structure must surely be vegetative rather than animal. She plans to incorporate it into a planting, and it should make a unique centerpiece.

We welcome guesses as to its origin!

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More Buried Treasure

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the odder things I’ve discovered while working on the site of the Old Library. Needless to say, I have not stopped finding such things. In addition to the usual glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans, candy and gum wrappers, plastic cups and flowerpots, I’ve found a two-foot length of pipe embedded in concrete (apparently at one time some sort of boundary marker or fencepost), two baseballs without covers (the covers, each in two separate pieces, were found nearby), a small wire rack of indeterminate purpose, and other odd bits of metal (and that’s not even counting the large pieces of hogwire fencing, overgrown with vines, standing up in one copse).

Two of the more intriguing finds, however, are shown below. Working in the area south of the library building, I kept finding fragments of some white material that I took to be ceramic tile of some sort. I kept collecting the pieces and eventually brought them home, thinking it might be interesting to try to reassemble them, like an archaeologist reconstructing a broken pot. The jigsaw below shows what I managed to construct after I’d washed the pieces and laid them out. On closer inspection, they proved to be part of a piece of asbestos siding, grooved to look like woodgrain. It is still a bit of a mystery where they came from, however, as the exterior of the library is stucco.

The second item is even more mysterious, as it’s not even clear what it’s made of. It has a sort of grain and is presumably wooden or at least vegetative (a section of thick vine, for example), but it must surely have been intentionally shaped. The entire thing is about 5¼″ long, and the first 4″ or so are shiny, as if coated with some kind of lacquer. The pointed part is rough, as if it might have been sanded into shape. It is not perfectly cylindrical or straight, again arguing for a natural origin, and the bottom, though apparently cut with a saw, is also not straight or smooth. I can’t imagine where the object might have come from or what it is meant to be.

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The Yard Work Weight Loss Plan

People keep telling me I’ve lost weight. I’ve been suggesting that my new shorter hairstyle makes my face look thinner. (Having two back molars extracted probably also contributes to the lean and hungry look.) If I receive such judgments from people I encounter while I’m walking, I say that the fit of my new walking shorts is more flattering.

But the fact is that I have lost weight—about ten pounds—and on my lightest days I’m down to the target weight I’ve been chasing since college days (over 50 years), though of course my shape is quite different from what it was in college!

The true secret is the yard work I’ve been doing up at the Old Library. Although I take frequent water and Gatorade breaks and feel that I’m more than replenishing what I’ve lost in perspiration, inevitably I weigh less after a day of yard work (7 hours or more in 90°+ heat with comparable humidity), and, although I gain a little bit back by the next day, there has been a steady downhill trend since January.

Although I have to regard this as a positive thing (especially with a visit to a new physician in the offing), there are downsides. My flab is now crepier than ever, and my clothes don’t fit properly. I’m reluctant to buy new clothes in a smaller size: that seems like tempting fate. But as long as I’m still not going anywhere or seeing anyone, I guess it really doesn’t matter. Moreover, I’ve had several compliments on the overalls I wear to do the yard work, and they fit great!

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Previously I have written about earthworms in relation to yard work and also about “brainworms.” Today the topic is earworms, which have started to take over from “brainworms” while I’m doing yard work. You know what an earworm is, I assume—a song or song snippet you can’t get out of your head. Music while working is not entirely unwelcome: any kind of mental diversion can be helpful. But some songs are better than others. One of the ones that’s been tormenting me lately is “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” which is not too bad, and at least I remember enough of the lyrics to be not entirely frustrated.

I have a pretty good idea where these earworms are coming from. On Sunday nights from 6 to 8, Alabama Public Radio airs a locally produced program called “The Crooners”:

Dale Owen hosts two hours of music from the best vocalists in pop and jazz. You’ll hear time-honored standards and favorites, along with selections from new artists and collections.

While I prefer classical music, I love show tunes and have no particular objection to pop standards and selections from “The Great American Songbook.” What I object to is lounge singers who try to distinguish themselves by applying their own “stylings” to a perfectly good song. These stylings include changes to the tempo, lyrics, and/or melody that distort the song so as to be sometimes almost unrecognizable. And “The Crooners” seems to specialize in singers of this type.

I do not choose to listen to this show. I like to have the radio on when I am working in the kitchen, and when I am fixing supper on Sundays, “The Crooners” is what is on. In theory, I could change the station, but in practice this is not possible. Our ancient kitchen radio has been set on 91.3 for so long that it is stuck there. Apparently the tuning knob has gotten corroded, and any attempt to change the station not only is unsuccessful but also runs the risk of not permitting a return to WHIL. So we just listen to what’s on the air, and if the station is off the air (which is not uncommon after storms), I leave the radio turned off and finish my chores, as quickly as possible, in silence broken only by the clink of dishes and the annoying buzz of the fluorescent fixture over the sink.

The song lyric that was tormenting me today I remembered only as “Something something, baby, baby, oh baby.” I finally decided perhaps it was “You know I love/want you, baby, baby, oh baby.” Even with this addition, however, the refrain rivaled in inanity that of a 1958 pop hit by the Chordettes that I derided in my high school newspaper:

Lollipop lollipop
Oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop, lollipop
Oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop, lollipop
Oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop

When I got home, I started searching for the actual lyrics to the “Oh Baby” song. Not an easy task, as it turns out: last night’s play list for “The Crooners” had not yet been posted, and Wikipedia’s disambiguation page lists 34 possibilities! And it doesn’t actually include the song in question, which turns out to be a rather lovely song called “Superstar,” sung by Karen Carpenter. The refrain is:

Don’t you remember, you told me you loved me, baby?
You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby
I love you, I really do

So I was pretty far off on that one! In any case, I find that the best defense against earworms is to start mentally writing a blog post. So this is today’s.

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More Yard Work Lessons

In a previous post, I wrote about some things I have learned about yard work. That post focused on uniform and tools. Here I’ll add some technique tips that are probably obvious to anyone who’s done this kind of work but that I learned along the way.

Hydration is Vital

I don’t ordinarily get (or feel) dehydrated, and I don’t carry a water bottle on my daily (45-minute) walks, but when I started doing the yard work at the Old Library, I found that I did need to resort to the water bottle I keep in the car. This was winter, though, so I wasn’t sweating much. As the days became warmer, I started going through more and more water, and sometimes it wasn’t really doing the trick. That’s when I figured out that water is essential, but Gatorade is better. I now go through a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade and a 20-ounce bottle of water during each yard work session (and I still come home dehydrated).

Work Uphill

For a septuagenarian with bad knees and hips, squatting is pretty much impossible and bending over gets old in a hurry. To reduce the amount of bending required, I find it helpful to work uphill. If the weeds I’m pulling or the leaves I’m scooping up are slightly higher than my feet, I don’t have to bend so far.

Make Deep Piles

By the same token, bending can be reduced by raking debris into bigger piles before scooping it into the tub for transport. Scoop off the top layer, then rake some more to make the pile higher again. Eventually, of course, you reach the bottom and have to bend all the way over, but this does still help.

Don’t Be Afraid to Kneel or Sit

There’s only so much you can do standing up, and sometimes (as when digging “potatoes”), you have to get down and dirty. I have a foam kneeling pad (similar to this one) that helps for that, not just for padding but also to keep my overalls from getting quite so grubby. Now I’m wondering if actual knee pads might be even more handy.

My Watch Battery Lasts Seven Hours, Period

For years I have used a Garmin Forerunner 405CX sport watch to track my daily walks and other activities, so I wear it when I’m doing yard work as well. The “course” that it displays, even at the highest zoom, is not very meaningful (see below), nor do I necessarily trust the mileage (the reported distance for the activity shown below was 6.36 miles, which is a little difficult to credit given the size of the place), but it’s helpful for keeping track of time and giving me a sense of accomplishment.

The watch specs claim that the battery will last eight hours in “training mode” (that is, with the GPS turned on and the timer running), but in my experience, it pretty much gives up after seven. Worse still, if the battery gives out while the timer is running, the watch gets confused and won’t sync to Garmin Connect. So I’ve learned to stop the watch at seven hours even if I actually work longer. Realistically, though, seven hours is about my limit as well, so perhaps the watch’s limitation is a helpful one!

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Getting to Job 1

As I have described in previous posts, I’ve spent a lot of time raking and weeding at the Old Library. Throughout that period, I’ve raked the same areas multiple times; sometimes I’m convinced I’m actually raking the same leaves over and over again. The problem is the magnolia trees. They have been molting for months, so there is a constant new supply of leaves, and the leaves are so large and volatile that it is very difficult to contain them: pile them up and they blow right back where they came from!

For that reason, I had been studiously ignoring the sidewalk that leads from Magnolia Avenue up to the library building. The photos below, from Google Street View, show the Magnolia side of the property in July 2019, before Hurricane Sally, with an arrow pointing to the sidewalk.

I had cleared this walk at least once already, but it had once again become buried in magnolia leaves. On June 4, however, it was sprinkling when I left the house and continued raining just long enough to soak me and all the vegetation, and, as I worked in a clearing east of the sidewalk, it occurred to me that this would be a good time, while the magnolia leaves were wet, to rake that sidewalk.

I had the best of intentions, of course, but, as usual, I got sidetracked. It seemed pointless to rake the sidewalk and ignore the grassy areas on either side of it (previously cleared but now cluttered with leaves again). When I started work on those areas, naturally one thing led to another, and I kept working farther and farther back into the undergrowth, and eventually my working time had expired, and I hadn’t gotten to the sidewalk at all—in fact, I had to leave some piles to be cleared another day. The photos below show the cleared areas east and west of the sidewalk.

On June 7, I was determined to get to that sidewalk. That was Job 1. As you can see, however, there was a little remaining pile of leaves in the area east of the sidewalk, which I wanted to clear up first. Then I encountered the patch of “potatoes” described in my previous post. And I decided I really needed to finish clearing that area between the sidewalk and the driveway. I had started work before 9 a.m., and it was 2:34 p.m. when I took this “Before” picture:

Of course, there was no point in just clearing the sidewalk and ignoring all the leaves and sticks and other debris on either side of it. I encountered another very tempting potato patch, which I reluctantly left for another day, but I did clear out a lot of vines. By 4:19, when the photo below was taken, I was very much afraid I might have to violate my policy of never leaving the site messier than I found it.

I persevered, however, and by 5:18, when I quit work, it was looking pretty respectable. There’s still plenty more work to be done, of course, but it was very satisfying to at least get that part done!

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One Potato, Two Potato…

I’m sure I have mentioned that the Old Library property is infested with vines. And roots. And roots of vines. I was complaining about this one day to a young neighbor of mine as she stopped to chat while walking one of the dogs she was dogsitting. I was pulling the roots up by handfuls, and she pointed out, “Yes, and if you follow them all the way back to the root, you’ll find something like a potato on the end.”

I thought I knew what she was talking about. When I’d pulled up vines at home, I’d often found a small tuber, yellowish white, about the size of a kernel of popped corn or a peanut shell. And yes, I’d found a few of those at the library as well.

Several days later, as I was raking under some sparkleberry, I spotted something the size of a large apple or onion that I at first took for a buried red rubber ball. Upon inspection, it proved to be the top of a large rhizome. I was afraid I would need a shovel to get it out, but I did eventually manage to winkle it out with my trowel. In my naïveté, I took it home—actually “them,” as it had had a partner—got out my black felt, and posed the roots (with a penny for scale) for a photo, which I then emailed to Clare with the hubristic subject line “Mother of all potatoes.”

Over a week later, Clare replied to my email with a photo of a cluster she had dug out of another neighbor’s yard.

By that time, however, I had already made a few finds of my own, as detailed in a previous post, to which I referred her. As I told her, her cluster was larger than either of the individual sites I’d cleared, but I thought my collection, in the aggregate, was larger.

From that time, the hunt was on. On May 28, I was working the area along the boundary fence. It’s no secret that vines like fences, and I made several good hauls. Here’s one:

This batch I dubbed the Ron Popeil Cluster (“But wait—there’s more!”) because after I had dug out what I thought was the entire nest and photographed them, I found several more hiding under my kneeling pad.

Having cleared the area between the driveway and the fence, I returned to work on the area beside Magnolia Avenue. This has progressed slowly, and I seem to cover the same ground repeatedly. When I started work on June 7, this is what I discovered when I raked under a sparkleberry tree:

Obviously, I could not ignore such a challenge! This proved to be the Energizer Bunny patch—it just kept going and going… Because of the tight space, I couldn’t use a shovel effectively, so I had to do most of the work with a trowel. I’d been concerned that I was pushing the trowel beyond its capacity, and in fact, the caption on the photo below could be “Don’t send a trowel to do a shovel’s job”:

The results were worth it, though:

When I returned to the site to continue work, I found one last straggler:

I don’t know how worthwhile these efforts are. In the time it took me to dig up these roots (almost an hour between first and second photos), I could probably have been more productive in raking and less radical weeding. But the results were very satisfying.

I continued to plug away, determined to finish this small area before moving on to Job 1 (read more about that in my next post). As I was raking under the same sparkleberry where I had found the “mother of all potatoes,” I spotted another “apple.” My first thought was doubt and disbelief. I was so sure I had dug that up!

When Clare sent me her trophy photo, she had commented that she would have loved to have been able to get it out in one piece, but it just wasn’t possible. I’ve had the same experience with all of my clusters—until this one, which I did manage to extract almost intact. Moreover, a bit of attached vegetation shows what sort of vine this is the root of!

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