I am building a retaining wall in our backyard. By hand, swinging the pick axe into the hard clay soil myself. It is something we have wanted for a long time, to contain our steep hill without all the English ivy it has now. We had estimates for the full kit'n'kaboodle: using a backhoe and really flattening the top of the yard, adding two walls and two sets of steps, expanding the patio and moving the kid's play fort to the top of the yard. The better of the estimates was $17,000. Yes, three zeroes. We did not hire them.
Instead, we cleared two areas of about 10' x 10' of ivy and planted a native azalea in each, along with starts of vinca (I have been told this is almost as invasive as English ivy but I haven't seen it happen in other parts of our yard, whereas ivy shows up all over and is hard to remove.) All of this was before the Flood of '09, at which time we had a river of red eroding the backyard in all the areas without ivy or grass. The area is doing better this spring; lots of things are growing at least. So, I decided to clear the area of ivy between them and behind my maple tree.
I found the maple seedling in the front lawn in 2000, our first summer in the house. I moved it to the backyard and it is now taller than the two story house. I think of it as Pook's tree because I watched it grow as I watched my pregnant belly grow. I first hoped it would have branches low enough for a swing and for climbing (our other trees rise three to four? five? stories before branching out.) but now I realize that any children playing in the tree would have to be my grandchildren. Still, I am emotionally attached to the tree.
As soon as the ivy between the two azalea beds was clear, I realized that I finally knew where I'd want a wall. The edge of the "grass" (such as it is) and beds forms a gentle scoop with the maple in the middle. A three to four foot wall would protect the tree, give plants on the hillside a chance, and maybe even expand the play area. Instead of stopping to think too much about it, I grabbed the spray paint, drew my line, and grabbed the shovel.
I started on a four foot area in front of the tree. Two inches deep. Pulled out a rock. Four inches deep. I hit some major roots to the maple. Five inches deep. I stopped to catch my breath a minute. If you live where the dirt is black, or even where the soil is sandy, you just will not understand this. Our clay soil is hard. A chunk kicked off the sole of your shoe quickly hardens to be a brick. This is where bricks come from, after all. I was digging into brick. And it wasn't even baked dry by the summer sun!
While resting, I called my father to accept the stones he had offered to me and ask some advice about dealing with the tree roots. I drove over for the stones so I could better measure the ditch I was digging, and I came back with the stones, my father and his pick axe. He and CD began to help, making progress slightly faster with the axe. There wasn't really much time to continue since there was lots going on besides yard work that day, but we had nine feet dug four to six inches. The ditch/wall will eventually be 29' long, six+ inches deep. I was somewhere between in-over-my-head and inspired.