If you’ve been following the saga of my own home unfold over the past couple of years, you may recall that my backyard is essentially a total wasteland of mega-depressing sadness whose only real function is as a dog toilet and junkyard.
This isn’t for total lack of effort. I’ve actually already done a fair amount of work back there, but it’s like every action has an equal and opposite reaction and the result is that nothing has actually gotten all that much better. In fact it’s very possible that things just look worse and worse. But sometimes things have to get worse before they get better, right? Let’s review:
By way of background, my entire property is about 75 x 100 feet, which is a lot of space. Granted on that land sits my house and a garage, but the yard space is still quite sizable especially for an urban lot. The previous owner took advantage of this fact by paving the majority of the backyard space in asphalt and evidently used it as an enormous parking lot. I’m told he worked for GM or something and had a few cars and, at one time, a boat.
So there was all the asphalt, an old foundation behind the garage (evidently the plan was to expand the garage to house the boat, but it never went any further than building the foundation—thank goodness), and LOTS AND LOTS of overgrowth. The house had been vacant for about 2 years and I don’t know how much maintenance the yard got before then, so the parts that weren’t paved were kind of a jungle.
Work began that first summer with a pretty hefty clean-out effort. I removed as much of the crazy overgrowth as I could, which included a ton of grape vine and Virginia Creeper that seems to really thrive in the 6″ gap between my fence and the neighbor’s, which is impossible to maintain. More on that in a sec.
So anyway. Lots of debris-clearing. Many many yard bags. So much fun.
This seemed like a big improvement at the time and I still think it was, but man…there is almost nothing I hate more than my chain-link fence, and removing all the overgrowth exposed so much more of it. Yuck, yuck. If I ran the world, chain-link fences would be illegal, but unfortunately I can barely run my own life so chances of this happening are slim to none.
The only good thing about chain link is that as long as you’re OK with your property closely resembling a prison yard, it is fairly maintenance free and has for the most part withstood the years fairly well. The neighbor’s wood fence is pretty decayed at this point, though, so it’s been super fun and charming to look through my chain-link at her decaying wood fence for the past two years. #pinterest
Last summer, a couple major things happened with the yard—the first being that I couldn’t stand the asphalt anymore and got it all removed. There was SO much of it that doing this DIY was just not at all an option—I called in the pros (my plumber and his team of chain-smokers) who had 3 or 4 different backhoes in there over the course of several days. Literal tons upon tons of my backyard were hauled away in massive trucks which felt very exciting and like a big leap forward, all to the tune of about $2,000 which more than maxed out the non-existant backyard budget for 2014.
What I had failed to account for is that removing so much of the yard (underneath the asphalt was a few inches of gravel which also got hauled away for the most part) would leave me with some major grading issues. When all the machines were in my backyard I may have spread a false rumor that I was installing an in-ground pool, which turned out to be not that far from the truth if you like pools that are really just enormous mud puddles. Luckily Mekko is a classy lady and Linus doesn’t know what fun is, so neither of them were terribly interested in our new water features.
The other major thing that happened last summer with the back yard was really what happened to the front yard—I put in a section of new fencing to delineate a front yard on the side of my house, and did my best to do some landscaping in that space. I’ll have to do a little update on that space in the next few weeks and we can review all the things that lived and also all the things that died. Whoops.
Stupid azaleas. I knew you were mistakes.
Anyway, the point of this story is that in order to landscape the front yard, I had to excavate the top 6-8″ of crap out of that whole area to fix some grading issues and remove all the old sod/weeds. I did it with a shovel and a wheelbarrow and my brute strength and steely resolve. As I filled each wheelbarrow, I wheeled it back about 50 feet and dumped it unceremoniously into the crater in my backyard. I had high hopes that this would make a big dent in the grading issue and allow me to get away with buying less fill dirt/topsoil, but I was mistaken and it barely made a dent beyond leaving my yard covered in mounds of weedy sod. ADORABLE.
Last fall was when work started on Bluestone Cottage down the street. You might recall that that yard also had major grading issues and essentially just way too much soil build-up, so the crew and I excavated about 1-2 feet out of the whole front yard, loaded it up, and brought it to my backyard. This also did not make the kind of dent I imagined it would in my problem and my severe drainage/grading issues still abound. But it didn’t hurt.
One area of major concern for me since buying the house was this enormous old Japanese Maple. It’s too bad because it’s a pretty tree, but it had really extensive rot right at the base, and its proximity to the house could have caused some serious damage if it ever decided to fall.
So last week I called Armin’s Tree Service here in Kingston, who also did the major tree/shrub removal over at the cottage in the fall. Armin is great! He’s prompt, professional, super duper knowledgable, and handles a chainsaw like a boss. He has a background in landscape design and knows everything about trees and is a nationally-ranked tree-climber (yes, that is a thing!), so I love picking his brain about suitable plants for my yard(s) and asking prying questions about the wild world of competitive tree climbing.
He evaluated the tree and the verdict was no bueno. He concurred that it was dying a slow death and at risk of falling on the house and recommended taking it down. He also offered to spend some time in his bobcat grading out my enormous mounds of soil, and I also took the opportunity to get him to trim up the honey locusts in the front of my yard between the street and the sidewalk.
Seeing this tree go was kind of sad, I’ll be honest. It was scraggly and dying but seeing something so old getting destroyed in a matter of minutes is just sort of an emotional affair. Plus its absence does not help the wasteland-y-ness of my yard.
Despite the momentary feeling of loss about the tree, this was such an exciting day! Along with grading out the mounds, Armin hauled away some pretty massive hunks of concrete that Max and I were just barely able to move out of the front yard when I was working on it last summer. All this work was about 600 clams (I don’t have a final invoice yet, so I’m not entirely sure), which sort of hurts but it needed to happen and this is the kind of thing that should really be hired out in my book.
So anyway! I feel like the slate has been wiped pretty clean, which feels great. I really feel like this is the summer when things will start to happen out here for real. As you can imagine, the two years of fantasizing about doing something with the backyard have left me with a brain full of ideas and I just want to get going.
Here is the basic plan! This rendering is missing quite a bit of stuff but frankly I spent way too much time sketch-upping what I really could have just scribbled out on a notecard so we’re all just going to live with it. Deal? Cool.
I’ll walk you through it. Real Life looks like this:
Not cute. Not cute in the slightest.
SketchUp Life looks kind of like this, though. So here’s the plan:
1. NEW FENCE, FINALLY. This is the year when all the chain link comes down and gets replaced with a fence to match the section I did in the front—6 foot dog-ear style opaque-stained black. This will probably be the single biggest improvement to promoting a sense of privacy and luxury that this backyard is sorely lacking. I know it seems like a lot of black, but it’s going to be really nice with plants and stuff…I really love the way the black fence recedes so nicely in the front and just lets the plants and trees shine, so I’m holding onto that idea back here. I’ve already talked to my neighbor about this and we both agree that sharing a single new fence along our property line is going to be the best plan to help avoid the impossible-to-maintain space that currently exists between our fences.
2. I want to follow the line of the garage and build a much lower fence (maybe 2-3 feet) to sort of section off this back part of the yard from the dogs. It still leaves a lot of space for them to run around and play and poop so they aren’t getting shafted, but I don’t want them messing with my….
3. MASSIVE PLANTERS. Each of these babies is about 4×12 feet. Construction should be really simple—I plan to build them much like the retaining wall situation over at bluestone cottage. I also want to stain these black. You might be sensing a theme. This is obviously a ton of planting space so I picture lots of veggies and herbs and probably flowers as well, just because I don’t think I could possibly consume as many veggies as these could potentially grow.
4. Not on the rendering, but along the back and side of the fence I want to plant some taller stuff to provide some more privacy and block some views I’m not a huge fan of. I’m thinking maybe forsythia along the back and some skinny evergreens mixed with something else (purple sandcherry, maybe?) along the side. I don’t want a fortress but I do want to not look at the commercial business next door quite so much.
5. Pea gravel! This is a whole helluva lot of a pea gravel. I think it’ll look great and feel fancy. I love feeling fancy.
Real Life looks like this. Too bad, so sad.
SketchUp Life looks something like this. YES, I will play with the dimensions of the planters so that the pathway between them aligns with the center of the garage. I’m not an animal.
So I also want to paint the garage black. Black-paint-haterz, eat your hearts out. It’s happening so you can be for it or against it but I do not care. This is me not caring at all. The impetus for this is that the garage is sort of cute but also sort of shack-like and SOMEDAY when my actual house is beautiful, I think it will just be so gorgeous to have this big white Greek Revival house being set off by all the nice plants and all the black stuff will sort of disappear and really let the house shine. I feel strongly about this and someday everyone else will too.
ANYWAY: FIRE PIT. I want my backyard to be a fun party zone too so obviously a fire pit is a must. Preferably one surrounded by four Bertoia diamond chairs but that might just stay in SketchUp world unless I happen to score some cheap ones.
I also want to put a set of doors on the backside of the garage. It’s not a huge amount of framing work and would allow me to easily add/remove seating when it’s not in use or during winter or whatever, as well as maneuver the grill, gardening crap, etc. etc. The existing door on the side of the garage is very small and this makes a lot of sense to me.
In Real Life, this mess lurks behind my garage. It’s just a place for weeds to grow and the dogs to poop. It’s totally wasted.
SketchUp Life, though, sees all of this shit getting excavated out and replaced with brick, I think. I have kind of a stockpile of brick from the chimney that was removed when the roof was redone, so I’d like to recycle those to make this space feel kind of special and nice. Its special use will be the trash/recycling/composting zone, so that I never have to look at any of those things anymore. There will be a gate at the end there so that I can easily move trash/recycling out the curb on trash night. I think the brick will be better than just doing more gravel for the wheels on the cans.
I know people will feel like this is an awfully inconvenient place to put garbage because it’s sort of far from the house itself, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I’m out there with the dogs a million times a day so it’s not such a big deal to walk the 38 feet from my back door to throw a bag in a can, and totally worth it to me to keep it out of sight. The city gives us these HUGE blue recycling bins (and soon HUGE brown trash bins) so there isn’t really a way to make trash cute here.
For the winter or when I’m feeling lazy or whatever, I might buy a couple cute cans to sit outside the back door as kind of a transfer station between the kitchen and the trash zone. They can sit on the porch or just off the porch or something.
WHAT’S THAT NOW? OH YEAH, PORCH.
Real life used to look like this, which was kind of awful. The house was a duplex so the fire escape from the second floor was needed, but now that it’s a single family it’s not necessary. I had it torn off when the roof was redone about a year and a half ago, and the roofers also tore off the little overhang above the mudroom door while they were at it because…I don’t recall why. Whatever.
That left us with this gorgeous view of today, which is totally shameful and horrendous and I’m sorry we’re all having to look at it.
The mudroom is really an awful space…the inside is all 70s wood paneling and vinyl tile flooring and leaky-roofing and just a total mess. I’ve known since day 1 I would eventually tear it off the house so I didn’t even have it re-roofed with the rest of the house. The interesting thing about it is that it’s actually a lot older than you’d think—the foundation it rests on is not original to the house but is a stacked bluestone foundation, so it more than likely post-dates the kitchen addition but pre-dates the garage and the bathroom/laundry additions. “Summer kitchens” are typical of houses of this era, so that’s my best guess as to what this thing was…and then it was all enclosed and turned into this hideous rotting appendage you see today.
Oh yeah, don’t mind the door leading to nowhere upstairs. I don’t have the key so it’s remained locked, but even so the fact that it’s there is a major thrill for my homeowner’s insurance company, as you can imagine. They just love that feature almost as much as they love my pit bull. Stupid insurance.
Anyway, SketchUp Life is so much more exciting. There’s a lot going on here so allow me to break it down…
I want to tear down that hideous mudroom thing and build a double-decker porch. The idea is to reuse the existing bluestone foundation but extend the porch along the entire width of the back of the house (minus the laundry room/bathroom additions). I don’t want the second floor porch to come out as far as the first floor (about 10 feet), so that’s why it’s set back a bit. I think the room above the kitchen (which was another kitchen when I bought the house) will eventually be my bedroom, so being able to walk out there with a cup of coffee in the morning is going to be so fancy. I will probably replace the door with the one on the existing mudroom since it matches the other exterior door that’s currently in the kitchen.
The nice thing about this plan is that it doesn’t all have to happen at once. You might notice that this rendering calls for replacing and enlarging the windows both upstairs and downstairs to ones that will work with the eventual kitchen renovation, let in more light, and follow the proportions of the rest of the windows on the house. Yes, this means sacrificing the cute casement window in the kitchen, but that thing is SO drafty and doesn’t match any other windows on the house style or size-wise, so it’s really for the best.
I think eventually the exterior door will also move to the back wall of the laundry room, which will sort of act as a mini mudroom/vestibule and provide access to the backyard. I’ve gone back and forth on just keeping the door in the kitchen or just switching it to the other side (where the existing casement window is), but I think this will look a lot cleaner both from the inside and outside of the house, even though it’s a little bit wonky. Anyway, relocating the door is a bit down the road so for right now it can stay where it is.
This rendering is obviously way short on detail but I’ve been doing lots of planning and scheming and sourcing to try to make this porch look as legit as possible. Luckily I have a front porch to take my cues from, so the plan is to order replica columns to match the ones on the front as closely as possible and keep this thing looking as original and greek revival as I can. I’d like to replicate the original exterior spindles I found to provide the railing upstairs, so feel free to ignore that silly mess I mocked-up. It’s going to be so nice, trust.
Also, any tips for tongue-in-groove porch flooring? I’m a little lost on where to source the right wood from, or what the right wood even is. I was thinking cedar but maybe I’ll do yellow pine (pressure-treated?) and stain it, or bite the bullet for fancy mahogany, or…I don’t know. Old porches are always tongue-in-groove so I don’t want the more modern-day alternative of 1×6 pressure treated boards—they’ll just look all wrong. If you want some MAJOR greek revival porch inspiration, you have to go look at Steve’s flawless work at An Urban Cottage—he gets into amazing detail that’s been so helpful as I plan this big project, including some really helpful product resources. He used mahogany on his new-old porch floor…the whole thing is kind of everything I want for here, except matched to the details on my house. So nice.
Oh, Linus. You little stud. I can’t wait to see that busted up gate GTFO.
There will still be a gate here, but it’ll be sized appropriately for a car and not for a boat. The existing gate is 16 feet wide which is just outrageous. I think maybe I’ll do two strips of bluestone for where the tires will go and then do some creeping jenny or something to fill it all in. I’ll also have a garden bed on the side of the garage—maybe just a nice boxwood hedge or something. And probably another one on the front of the porch. Haven’t decided yet. Anyway. It’ll be nice, whatever it is.
Lest you’re still mourning the loss of the tree, chin up! The bright side is that right behind the old tree is this super cool circular bluestone bed that looks to be very very old and I LOVE. It’s closer to the house than the old tree, but I’d like to clean it all up and plant a nice tree right smack-dab in the middle—I’m thinking a dogwood since it’ll stay small-ish and Armin said it would do well here. Also I’m from Virginia so I have a real soft spot for dogwoods.
So, the backyard! It’s ON. I love yard work so hopefully I can find time on weekends to tackle this sucker, since Olivebridge Cottage is taking up my weekdays and I need to get back to bluestone cottage, too. Why NOT have a million different things going at once? I see no valid reasons.
Oh yeah, and I want to adopt a puppy.
SO. I might start mudroom-deconstructing pretty much ASAP, because I’m nuts, and I have a rental rototiller reserved to pick up on Friday so I can till the living daylights out of my whole yard this weekend, continue getting things graded out, and maybe even get away with not purchasing a bunch of soil to fill in if possible. By the by, I’ve been researching clover lawns as opposed to traditional grass and they seem like kind of my answer to everything (draught-resistant, dog-urine resistant, way less mowing…), so if anyone has thoughts/experience with that I’d love to hear them.
If not, go away.
Just kidding. Tell me everything. I need help.