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March 2, 2013

Great friends took 8 months to build this garden

The first beets harvested in June.
Celery plants like their home.
So far, the fence has kept critters out.
I wanted to design something that would require little maintenance, allow intensive planting and work easily as we age.
— Lou Emerson
By this time of year, gardeners are itching to get their hands back into the dirt. This year, I’ll do so in my own little Eden.

Twenty-five years ago, Lou built a wonderful garden that measured 30 by 40 feet — plenty of space by most standards. He cut down locust trees for the fence posts and created a large protected space to plant tomatoes in an open area near the pond.

Over the years, however, the posts rotted and, due to my neglect for the last five, the vines took over, pulling down the fencing.

After years of ignoring the mess, I decided in June 2011 to reclaim the space, a huge undertaking. I tried to do it by myself but wasn’t very successful. So that summer, I planted a modest garden, primarily because it was so overgrown, with the fence and gate falling apart.

I asked Lou if he would repair the fencing and gate. But he said it would have to wait until winter.

After many conversations about cleaning up the garden and rebuilding the fence, Lou came up with a plan — a much bigger plan. He wanted to expand the garden to 40 by 60 feet and have access from all four sides. There would be six raised beds made of concrete block and capstone. The beds would measure 18 inches high, a good height for sitting, and 4 feet wide wide, so that I could easily reach to the center without straining. In addition to those beds, there would be space for a bordering perennial garden.

“I wanted to design something that would require little maintenance, allow intensive planting and work easily as we age,” Lou said of his plan. “I also thought about a space for cocktails and entertaining!”

In January 2012, Lou and his friends started the great renovation of “Ellen’s Garden.”

The demolition began with two tractors pushing down fences and pulling vines and roots. Gnarly weeds and old railroad ties went to the burn pile.

With the old “structure” out of the way, Lou removed about a foot of rich topsoil, which had been worked and improved for the nearly 24 years. He created two large piles, covered with tarps, for safekeeping.

Throughout February and March, Lou worked to grade the base of the new garden. In March, a few friends helped him plant 12-foot, 6-by-6 pressure-treated corner posts in concrete.

The new rectangle took shape.

That set the stage for the big weekend in April, when eight of his buddies, aka the “Smoots,” would come to build an L-shaped rock wall in the high corner and to start construction of the concrete-block raised beds.

The Smoots are all great friends who get together for various construction and repair projects. Lou’s jobs typically rank among the most ambitious. Over the last decade, they’ve repaired a barn, jacked up and rebuilt parts of several buildings, restored a concrete dam, redecked a bridge, remodeled kitchens, moved boulders, cut countless cords of firewood and, well, you get the idea . . . .

Including childhood friends, “The Smoots” come from all stages of Lou’s life. Most work office jobs and crave stupid, physical labor. (Think ice packs, anti-inflammatories, back braces and lots of grunting.) Some have electrical and fine carpentry skills. Some focus on picks, shovels and paint rollers.

The Smoots are:

• The Slyes, practically like brothers to Lou — Chap, Greg and David — all lifelong friends who grew up in Luray.

• Fred Betz from Fredericksburg, Lou’s college roommate.

• Jay Eackles, another old friend and Luray native.

• Steve Hall, a friend from Warrenton.

• John Fox, my brother.

• Eric Herlan, Chap’s son-in-law and the newest, youngest Smoot . . . by almost 30 years.

It helps to understand the Smoot language.

Of course, a person can be a Smoot.

But, Smoot also works as a verb — as in to Smoot it up or to Smoot something.

An event also can be a Smoot, as in a gathering of Smoots.

So, a Smoot can call the Smoots for a Smoot to Smoot a project.

Follow that?

Well, calling a Smoot requires management and planning. Hearty food — three full meals a day — and the proper assortment of beverages lay the groundwork for any Smoot.

And, of course, before the Smoots came to Warrenton for the “Ellen’s Garden” Smoot, Lou had to get all the materials and develop a plan, including a scale drawing of the new compound.

Pictures help, because some Smoots have profound ADHD that only intensifies in the presence of other Smoots.

The shopping list for this Smoot:

• 54 tons of gravel.

• 540 concrete blocks.

• 275 block capstones.

• 6 cases (72 tubes) of construction adhesive.

• 48 bags of Sakrete.

• 48 rebar stakes.

• 20 bags of mortar for the stone wall.

• A pile of rocks.

• 2 rolls of landscape fabric.

It looked like the makings of a foundation for a new home. On Facebook, Lou described a photo he posted as “supplies for an incredible garden with 6 raised beds in the new compound for Ellen.”

Two tractors, a rented plate tamper, a truckload of hand tools and lots of measuring devices rounded out the preparations.

A connoisseur of rocks and their stacking, Chap oversaw construction of the L-shaped wall in the corner, with stones carefully selected from around the farm. I never imagined having something so beautiful in my garden.

That first weekend, the Smoots built three of the planned six raised beds.

The Smoots leveled and compacted gravel for each “foundation,” atop which they meticulously laid and glued together the concrete blocks. Rebar and concrete “posts” — poured into the block voids — ensure the beds will stay put. You can imagine the level scrutiny, with nine guys wandering around the job site.

As soon as a bed got built, I wanted to start planting.

Each bed got filled with a mixture: at least three large bales of peat moss, at least 20 bags of composted manure and topsoil saved from the old garden. Lou tilled the layers inside each bed to create what he calls “designer soil.”

Over the next few weeks, Fred, Greg, Steve and John came back to help Lou build the other raised beds.

In June, some of the guys returned again to help install the fencing, which hangs on 38 posts, stained light gray. The fence has a foot of “rat wire” around the base, overlapping 5-foot welded wire panels with 2-by-4-inch openings. Above that, two strands of 3/8-inch nylon rope take the height to almost 8 feet, enough — so far — to keep out the deer.

In early July, Lou built and installed the first custom gate. On each of three sides, the garden has a 4-foot wide gate, stained a beautiful periwinkle blue. (The gate colors represent one of the few decisions I made for this project.) For the fourth side, Lou made a double gate, wide enough for the tractor. That “service gate” got stained raspberry pink.

By August came the finishing touches: Two Adirondack chairs, stained to match the pink gates, and a market umbrella in the rock wall corner. All of this got done just in time for my birthday. What an incredible present! I truly treasure this beautiful space, which far exceeds my dreams.

I thank the Smoots for their craftsmanship, backbreaking work and cherished friendship.

I hope they’ll come back. Lou has plans for three more rock walls . . . and another raised bed for blueberries.
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Sally Murray · March 4, 2013 at 8:38 pm
Interesting gardening story but even more a warm story about friendship. The Smoots! Love it.
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