Need advice on mulch dilemma

violetwestAugust 20, 2013

I tried posting this question in other forums without much success, and I'm still struggling with this dilemma. Hope I can get some advice here!

I live in the Southwest, and have a new tract home with a rectangle of dirt I in my back yard. Soil is sandy. Rock mulch is ubiquitous (and needed) here in our fierce heat.

I live on the edge of the desert and new construction, and the fierce winds of fall and spring blow dust and sand onto my property. This will be the case for at least 1-2 more years, until the rest of the homes in my subdivision get built and more landscaping, etc. is put in.

I am having to pay $350 to get the dust and sand dug up, and all my rock mulch sieved in the already-landscaped front yard. But I cannot wait much longer to do the back, so . . . .

--Should I just go ahead and mulch the back now with rock? I'll probably have to dig up and sieve it next year, if so, or just dump more rock on it.

--alternatively, can I use compost as mulch? I'm assuming it's more expensive, but my thinking is if it gets coated in dust and sand over the course of the next year while construction is going on, I can just turn it under when I'm ready for the next stage in my landscaping. Is this correct?

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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

I too live in the SW, although my soil is clay. My question would be, what is your plan for the area. If you plan to plant things in the area, I would not put gravel mulch down. You could start putting compost down to build the soil but I would wet it down well, otherwise it will blow. You could also put straw down, but again, wet it down. Wood chips, if coarse enough would probably not blow away. You could also have a cover crop or green manure planted there which will keep the sand in place and can be worked in as well.

I hate digging in areas that had gravel mixed in. It makes digging twice as difficult whenever the shovel hits a rock, even a gravel sized one. Also, gravel is not the only option in our hot areas. One of the drawbacks of gravel is that it increases the amount of heat around the house, making your cooling system work harder.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 1:31PM
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violetwest

I intend to plant around the perimeter of my rock wall, so I considered leaving those areas "bare" -- I probably won't start to plant those areas until the Spring. I do want to plant trees in the fall.

In other areas, I intend to put pavers and pea gravel, plus a circular feature with a gravel spiral path. I'm most concerned right now about adding shade, privacy, etc., and preparing for planting.

But if I leave the soil bare, I will get (am getting) lots of weeds. I don't actually need to amend the soil with the compost, because I am planning native and hardy adapted plants only, which my research tells me do better in natural soil. Sorry, I'm a complete noob at this.

Keeping mulch "wetted down" is a problem in my drought stricken area.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 2:22PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

I find even the native plants need a little extra, depending on the plant. You never make the soil too rich for the desert natives but they still need a little something.

For keeping it wet down, I meant to just wet it initially so that it settles some. Once settled into place, less blows off. The drought is still exceptional where I am, I use dishwater and water from mopping, etc. to work on areas that can use the moisture.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 3:18PM
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violetwest

thank you, tishtoshnm, for taking the time to answer! I will explore alternatives.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 4:10PM
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glib(5.5)

This seems to be a great place where to apply wood chips thick. No blowing, and in two years the soil is ready for shade trees.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 10:03PM
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violetwest

I don't know of anyone in my area who uses wood chips. Not much wood is used at all in landscaping here.

and wait two years to plant shade trees? Are you insane? (meant in the nicest way possible :p)

Keep in mind I'll be planting native desert trees which grow in my poor alkaline soil.

This post was edited by Violet.West on Wed, Aug 21, 13 at 0:03

    Bookmark   August 20, 2013 at 11:00PM
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TXEB(9a)

Really good thinking on growing things that are well suited for the native soils.

I don't know anything about growing in desert climates, but it makes no sense to me to put compost on top of rock that has to be removed and sieved later. It makes even less sense if you stand to loose some of the valuable compost to blowing winds between now and then. The compost on top will rather quickly dry out, and if the winds are as strong as you suggest, then you stand to loose what will probably be lighter than sand and fairly dusty by fall.

If you need more mulch cover now, then use whatever mulch you will in then end, and save the compost for the next time you pull the mulch and it can be added to the soil.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 8:00AM
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violetwest

I was contemplating using the compost as mulch, not on top of rock.

I'm such a noob gardener that I've been reading all these books that say you must protect your soil from erosion and weeds, and to retain moisture, etc.

I'm not sure what to do. Maybe I'll just live with erosion and weeds for a while.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 9:51AM
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TXEB(9a)

Weeds in the interim aren't all bad, but you really want to avoid erosion. As an alternative to weeds, how about a cover crop, both to hold soils and to be used as a green manure later? See the link below for some ideas from AZ useful for desert gardens. You may also want to check with your county extension agent for cover crops that may be better suited to your area.

Here is a link that might be useful: Cover Crops for AZ

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 10:09AM
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violetwest

that is an interesting link. you guys here in the soils forum are so helpful!

I'm unfamiliar with the concepts of "cover crop" and "green manure" -- will have to research. I have an awfully small yard to do that in, though.

As for erosion - it really seems like the wind is depositing more soil and sand in my yard (which is walled) than it removes, but I could be wrong.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 2:06PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

A small yard makes cover crops easy. Plant the seed, and then later you can just cut it with a weed-whacker. I definitely would not spend money on gravel until you have a firmer plan in place of where you want it. Why pay to move it again?

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 2:12PM
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TXEB(9a)

Violet - think of a cover crop as a temporary ground cover, that is grown seasonally for the purpose of being used to enrich the soil in which it is grown. Typically at some point during its growth cycle it is "harvested" and either left as a mulch or incorporated into the soil as organic material.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2013 at 5:14PM
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Kimmsr(4a/5b-MI)

That "dust and sand" that gets blown onto your property is someone else's "topsoil". If you are getting so much of that soil that you need to have it removed then someone is not following good soil conservation practices. Also, if that much is blowing around you need to think about what adverse health affects to you are going to be the result of this erosion because you are breathing that dust and sand.
Most everywhere has erosion control requirements that in your area are not being met.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2013 at 6:53AM
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violetwest

I think those are some good points, and under ordinary circumstances I'd agree. But I don't think you fully understand my situation. I'd post a pic, but GW seems to have broken my photobucket.

I'm on the edge of the desert in a new subdivision. The winds, which are often 50 mph gales in certain seasons, are coming from the direction of the new subdivision phase which has all been cleared (read: acres and acres of sand) and in addition, we just get dust storms over the whole region because of the drought. these are extraordinary circumstances, some of them temporary. It is not fully controllable. At this point, I'm not stealing someone else's topsoil, but it's pretty much a given that whatever I put in my yards is going to be covered with it, at least for now.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2013 at 9:30AM
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toxcrusadr

I know what you're talking about. I lived in Albuquerque for years, and our yard was decomposed granite and limestone - basically sand to kitty litter size particles. The surrounding sagebrush scrub had a LOT of bare ground, even in undisturbed areas. It's not poor soil conservation, it's the Southwest. When the wind blows, the sand blows. And it does blow. In March we used to have 40-50 mph gusts some days.

Cover crops sound great but only if there is enough water to support life.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 11:52AM
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violetwest

yeah, the advice on cover crops doesn't work well when we are in severe drought. But, good thought though!

and your pic/link is spot on!

This post was edited by Violet.West on Fri, Aug 23, 13 at 15:13

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 2:40PM
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TXEB(9a)

Violet - we still don't know where you are. You've said SW and desert, but is it high desert, or what? There are cover crops that work well at the right time of year in desert climes. But there are desert climes where not much of anything will work as a cover crop. As far as drought goes, we're in our 3rd year of extreme drought too.

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 2:50PM
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violetwest

I am in the El Paso/Las Cruces area, in the valley. Elevation 3,793. USDA zone 8a, Sunset Zone 10.

The problem with any kind of cover crop is water, I think, which may be why I've never heard of it (or maybe because I'm a complete novice).

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 3:20PM
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barb333(5)

You say that if you do not protect the soil weeds grow. Why not let the natural plants (weeds) grow as a cover crop to control erosion until you are ready to plant and the development is finished? Keep it simple and use the natural ecosystem to manage your dilema, work with nature and get creative. KISS as they say.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2013 at 1:04AM
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TXEB(9a)

Violet - if you're on the TX side, El Paso County, you might want to talk with the County Extension folks (link below), There is also an El Paso Master Gardeners program to which they can connect you ( http://txmg.org/elpaso/ ). If you're on the other side of the line, there may be similar programs from NM. They are usually a very good resource to tap into (both for growing things and for managing pests).

Here is a link that might be useful: TAMU Extension in El Paso

    Bookmark   August 24, 2013 at 9:49AM
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violetwest

Thank you TxEB -- I am right on the line, and have already hooked up with all those people (but haven't asked this landscaping question yet.) I agree -- fantastic resources.

barb -- that's an idea, which I have considered, but a) not very aesthetically pleasing (a main consideration for me); and b) I'd really like to start planning and executing this year. I don't want to wait two years for the construction to be finished to landscape my yard.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2013 at 11:54AM
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violetwest

Well, I think I decided to quit worrying about it so much, start putting the stuff I want in my yard, and see what happens.

I did buy my first official mulch today (as well as my first ever bushes.) I'm going to have part of my "dry river" dug up where the water is pooling, and put large bark mulch there instead and berm around it to make kind of a rain basin. It might blow away, but we'll see.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2013 at 10:33PM
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Kimmsr(4a/5b-MI)

The use of cover crops seems to be falling out of favor by many people that have either forgotten , or never learned, the lessons of the dust bowl days. A cover crop is simply something you grow in your soils to help keep that soil from eroding. That cover crop will also add some needed organic matter to that soil. Texas A & M once had on line some good information about cover crops for arid areas that may still be available to the county offices.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 6:33AM
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TXEB(9a)

Violet - good thinking! You can go slowly at first and see what happens. Fall is about the best planting time for most of us. One comment, in my experience large bark nuggets are about the least dense of any mulch I know, and they tend to be prone of blowing or washing away - although washing away may not be an issue for you - they just seem to be easily moved.

This post was edited by TXEB on Mon, Sep 2, 13 at 8:42

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 8:41AM
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violetwest

yeah, it might blow away. But it was cheap, so don't have much to lose if it does. We'll see!

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 1:46PM
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TXEB(9a)

I'm in SE TX. Historically, we're pretty wet, and when it rains it pours - Gulf Coast T-storms. One of the things we like to use around here to deal with the deluge that comes from roof runoff in valleys and the like are what are called "riverbeds". Basically it is a wide, shallow trench or dugout zone between landscape beds that we line with river rock. When dry it looks like a dried-up creek bed. It can be done on any scale, as simple or intricate as you like, different rocks sizes and colors are available. The good news is even in tropical weather (high winds, incredible rainfall rates) the rock won't budge, and it keeps all the dirt in place.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 2:02PM
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violetwest

I thank you for your comments; except my dry riverbeds are now covered with dirt and sand, which is the root of my dilemma and the whole point of this post. Eh?

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 9:20PM
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TXEB(9a)

Doh! Now I get it. When you say covered, how much are you talking about?

    Bookmark   September 3, 2013 at 3:39PM
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violetwest

2-3 inches probably at the deepest point. Not something I can blow off with a blower. * In looking at my original post, I didn't mention the dry riverbeds, but I guess I should have.

*I bought a blower several months ago, and am too scared to put it together -- it came with so many warnings, like -- don't store it outside, and don't this and don't that. I think it's battery powered.

Yes, I'm a wimp.

This post was edited by Violet.West on Tue, Sep 3, 13 at 21:19

    Bookmark   September 3, 2013 at 9:18PM
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TXEB(9a)

2-3 inches? You really do get the soil deposits. That is something totally out of my experience.

Blowers are great tools, but I can only imagine a Violet-made dust storm with soil like that.

One of my unusual but favorite gardening grooming tools is a traditional sweeping broom. I'm talking like an old O'Cedar angler type indoor broom. Give it a try sometime - they're great for moving that top layer of soil around. Might work on the loose topsoil covering your river bed.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2013 at 9:27PM
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violetwest

it's only that deep in the bottom of the "river." a broom sounds like a fine idea!

    Bookmark   September 4, 2013 at 1:41PM
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violetwest

So I finally uploaded my pics to my 'puter (since photobucket is not being cooperative) -- thought you might like to see my silted up "river" (looks a lot like the Rio Grand around here, ha!)

believe it or not, there are river rocks underneath all that. My biggest problem is getting laborers I've hired to actually show up and do the work. Beyond frustrated with that.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 5:52PM
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TXEB(9a)

So, where are the border guards?

That's impressive. What happens on cars, and roofs and driveways?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 6:01PM
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violetwest

tends to just blow right off the driveways/hardscape, or you can sweep it. Roofs -- dunno. If your car is parked right in the path, it can really eat the paint and trim. Fortunately, I now have a garage.

and btw, that's from only about 8 months worth of weather.

This post was edited by Violet.West on Sun, Sep 8, 13 at 18:51

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 6:50PM
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violetwest

since I can't get anyone to keep their promises and show the crap up to do the work, I may have to do this a little at a time myself. I don't even have a shovel. But I guess I'll get one. And a wheelbarrow. Although I don't know how I'm going to get/make a screen.

Also need one of those little garden stools, lol.

I really don't understand how one is supposed to keep that rock looking neat. Raking doesn't seem to do much of anything.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2013 at 3:27PM
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violetwest

guys, an update. I've made some progress on my back yard and have decided, after more research, to plant some of the back in cover crops for the winter, while I work on some of my other garden hardscape and shapes. I hope it will stabilize the soil a bit for now and I'll turn it under in the spring before planting.

I've ordered hairy vetch and winter rye from Gardens of the Southwest, and I think I have enough time to get it in the ground if I plant by next week (they will be constructed my screen porch this week). thank you TXEB, for the excellent suggestion.

As for the front . . . have planted a couple more things (and removed some dead things); and am going to try to dig up the river rock myself. I've given up my efforts to get the rock mulch screened for now.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2013 at 1:35PM
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TXEB(9a)

Cool! I love the determination. Keep us posted - with pics.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2013 at 1:53PM
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violetwest

So, update. My builder finally sent somebody out to rescreen all the rock landscaping in the front for free. Man, it was a disaster. Meanwhile, I've hired guys to blow it twice a month; hopefully that will help, but I'm sure I'll have to do it all again sometime on my dime.

Now that I'm working on my back yard, I'm just not going to put rock or gravel down until I get it all laid out and planted, or it will be covered in dirt too. Very perplexing situation.

Oh, btw -- my cover crop to stabilize the soil sorta failed when I had contractors in to build a screen porch and they dumped all over it and trampled it and stored their stuff on it. It did grow in most places about 3 inches, and now I'm ready to turn it over and build a low rock retaining wall to plant behind. I think it served its purpose okay.

This post was edited by Violet.West on Tue, Apr 8, 14 at 14:27

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 2:25PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

Looking at the silted up river pic, I think your best bet might be brick. I know it will look a lot different but a nice flat surface that you can just take a shovel to would make life a lot easier. The gravel mulch in that area that is above the grade of the river rock seems to be pretty clean. As long as the gravel mulch is higher than the grade of the brick 'river', you could just hose off the mulch and silt up the 'river'. Once there,you could just shovel it up.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 5:11PM
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violetwest

I appreciate your advice. I think there are a couple of problems with your approach, though; for one, I think you underestimate my ability to "just shovel it up" lol! Also, a brick or concrete surface, aside from the aesthetics (and my HOA regs) isn't permeable and would not be a good solution for stormwater.

Very hard to explain my regional conditions to someone who doesn't live here -- blowing sand and dust, monsoon downpours in the summer which flood the desert.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 6:21PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

Well I was thinking more along the lines of someone could shovel it up. And brick is permeable if dry laid instead of in mortar.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 7:58PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

I understand the climate in the desert can be difficult, but before dismissing an idea out of hand it is usually a good idea to know what you are dismissing. What I am describing is called an architectural element called a rill. Rills have been used for irrigation and storm water management in the deserts of the world for thousands of years. You built one yourself when you built the dry steam bed. The problem is that yours is not as functional as a rill with a flat bottom. You could make one out of brick, concrete pavers, granite cobbles, or fieldstone cobbles. The important part is that they are well laid, flat, and at least the width of a flat shovel.

But what do I know about the desert. I'm just an architect/landscape architect that has spent time studying the irrigation and water management strategies of ancient desert cultures.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 8:22PM
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violetwest

nil13 I wasn't dismissing your advice; please, please don't take it so. I sincerely appreciate anybody who takes the time to read my posts and respond. I didn't mean to impugn your knowledge or advice, and I'm sorry if it came out that way. Not everyone really understands my climate or conditions, and I'm used to getting inapplicable advice from people living in other parts of the US.

I know what a rill is, too! It can be a really beautiful feature, and harks back to indigenous water management techniques, which we don't pay enough attention to, imo.

The landscaping in front came with the house and is not what I would have put in. Those are not native plants out there, the "landscapers" (and I use that term loosely) plopped big boulders in a very random way, they made that dry stream to point uphill, I don't know where the irrigation system lines go, etc. etc.

However-- Right now my biggest concern is simply maintaining the front in a neat manner while I put my attention and money on the back, which up to now has been merely a rectangle of dirt. One of my biggest problems has simply been to find somebody to do the work of cleaning the front, because they'd promise me and not show up. I'm also culpable because being a new homeowner, I didn't understand the maintenance required (i.e, blowing the dirt off) to keep it looking nice.

In fact, I have workers coming tomorrow to start the landscape in my BACK yard -- building a low retaining rock wall, extending the drip irrigation, putting a sleeve for future lighting, and delineating a circular feature with steel edging. That's a big project -- for me at least.

A major problem still remains with accumulation of dust and sand over every surface. I've decided to wait to put gravel down in the back until it's more finished, because until all of the houses get built and more of my neighbors plant up their yards, it will continue to be a problem. Probably will still be a problem forever just because of being on the edge of the sprawl, but I'll do what I can.

My intent with this post is to update you that for now, at least, the front is okay. This forum has been, and continues to be very helpful to me; and again, I appreciate the advice.

This post was edited by Violet.West on Tue, Apr 8, 14 at 22:15

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 8:55PM
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violetwest

Here just because is a pic of my recently refreshed front yard

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 9:07PM
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violetwest

And my lovely rectangle of dirt which will look different starting tomorrow. Hey it's the soil forum, right! So... Soil!

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 9:10PM
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violetwest

After having the entire front yard rock mulch screened, and watching it be covered in sand again immediately, I've pretty much come to the conclusion that my front yard is poorly designed for the site.

I think I'll have to re-do the whole design (which I did not choose) to allow for wind screening. Possibly with some non-permeable hardscaping or screening plants in the corner most affected by the winds. Maybe . . . next spring?

    Bookmark   May 21, 2014 at 5:35PM
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toxcrusadr

Oh, that must have hurt!

    Bookmark   May 21, 2014 at 5:50PM
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violetwest

It's been frustrating indeed. And there's really no end in sight, because even if they finish building around me . . . the desert goes on forever. I hate to put non-permeable stuff out there, but may have to.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2014 at 6:49PM
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