The Asphalt is Gone!

It’s a story I end up telling a lot.

“What brought you to Kingston?”

“A house.”

And it’s true. We came up here with some friends for a weekend in late December, fell completely in love with Kingston, got drunkenly curious about real estate listings, saw one for a house around the corner from where we were staying, and trespassed on the property the next morning on our way out of town, just because we were so curious. I remember spending the drive back to Brooklyn and the rest of the day fantasizing about buying it, imagining how easily (HAH!) it could be restored, and how fun it would be to live in this amazing little city I hadn’t even heard of the week before. I thought it would be a passing thing, that maybe the next day or the day after, I wouldn’t wake up and go to bed completely obsessed with a vacant house 2 hours away that I’d seen for all of 10 minutes. And then I did something stupid: I bookmarked the listing on my internet browser. It was kind of like having a song stuck in your head—you can either try to avoid it or just give in and listen to it on repeat. It couldn’t hurt to just check in on it every few hours or so for weeks on end, just to see if it had sold or was in contract or something. Where was the harm in that? People check Perez Hilton all day at work and don’t go out and try to purchase a celebrity.

Then the price dropped. And I did another stupid thing: I called the listing agent. Just to find out what the hell was so wrong with this place. Just so I could stop thinking about it. Surely the foundation was crumbling into the ground or carpenter ants had whittled all of the wood framing down to unstable toothpicks or something really bad that would just put the whole thing to rest.

But it all sounded fixable. And it was just a two hour drive. And we weren’t doing anything that Saturday. Would we like to come for a walk-through? Sure. I guess. Why not.

Remember that thing I said about seeing it first in late December, though? There was about 2 feet of snow on the ground. Snow has a way of masking certain flaws and making everything very charming. By the time we actually came for the walk-through, it was the end of February. The snow had melted. The house was still more or less the same, but the yard looked significantly less attractive than I’d imagined it when all you could see was a blanket of white.

Asphalt. So much asphalt. Almost the entire yard was covered in asphalt.

At that point I was way too obsessed with the house to let a little blacktop get between me and my future home, so I ignored it. We’d cross that bridge when we got to it. No biggie.

Now that we’re over a year into home ownership, though, and it’s summer, and I have outdoor projects on my mind…I really wanted the asphalt to disappear. I know lots of readers thought I should make lemonade out of these lemons and cover it with this and build that and just let it be, but I might not be accurately portraying just how much asphalt there was. Especially once I built the fence to create a separate front yard from the backyard (which I’ve been doing some work on, yay!), we were left with a relatively small area of grass and a vast majority of our backyard covered in asphalt.

Before4

What. A. Disaster. Not only was the snow covering all this asphalt, it also covered an old foundation behind the garage—part of a never-realized plan to extend the garage, apparently. The foundation was a total mess…it looks like the previous owners wanted to extend it a certain distance, then decided to extend it even further, then never quite finished and just threw a bunch of cinderblocks into the center of it and ran. I tried to get in there a couple of times to clear the weeds and see if we could use it in some way, but it was just a losing battle…so instead it just became a weed jungle. So charming.

Before3

Anyway, I guess the previous owner had several cars AND a boat at one time, so I’m sure all of this pavement seemed like a decent idea at the time. We only have one car, though, and no boat or any reason for the backyard to be paved, and there was really just way too much of it for any kind of creative solution to remedy. If we didn’t have dogs it might be another story, but even though I don’t really like grass and I don’t want any in the front of the house, I do want the dogs to have a nice big area of grass in the back that they can run around in. Dogs love grass. That’s just science.

Before5

Because the asphalt runs within a couple of feet of the property line on two sides, it really limited our landscaping options. The back of the yard faces this house, and the other side faces a rental property in the front and a commercial business in the back…all of which I’d like to get a little privacy from with some taller trees and planting, but it doesn’t really make sense to do any of that until the fence is replaced and the asphalt is removed.

Aside from all of this, the asphalt is just such a bummer. It’s totally ugly, it wasn’t in good shape, it doesn’t serve a functional purpose, and it just makes the house and garage and whole backyard look and feel really sad.

So there. That is my whole defense. I wanted it all gone. Clean slate, fresh start. I briefly considered leaving an area next to the garage for parking, but I’d so much rather do that with a couple strips of bluestone with some groundcover surrounding it or something other than a huge bed of pavement. Even parking can be charming if it’s done right, you know?

bobcat1

I wasn’t quite sure how this whole removal process would happen, though. In the earlier, stupider days of homeownership, I thought maybe I’d rent a dumpster and jackhammer and do it all myself.

This was an insane plan.

Then my plumber, Carl, mentioned that he owned a backhoe. It makes sense, given that he has to tear up streets and sidewalks and stuff sometimes, so I half-jokingly asked if he wanted the pleasure of removing all my asphalt. And he did. So I let him. Just like that! I really love Carl—he’s done all of our plumbing work at the house, and he’s super great to work with and reasonable and just an all-around awesome dude. I’m so happy he was up for this, even though it really doesn’t have to do with plumbing at all! What a guy.

I don’t think any of us realized how intense the removal would be. It took four days, I think…first with the small-ish backhoe you see above. Mostly they broke up large portions and put them all in a pile. It was incredibly exciting.

Underneath the asphalt was a TON of gravel, which I wasn’t really anticipating. I guess that’s how it’s done? News to me. Instead of leaving me with a gravel backyard instead of an asphalt backyard, I asked that we excavate down a bit further to remove a lot of the gravel. Some gravel I can deal with, but not to the point that you can’t even see the soil. That was not the point of this whole exercise.

meonbobcat

At the end of Day 1, Carl let me play around on the backhoe for about 45 minutes while he and the crew mocked me relentlessly for being so confused by all of the levers and buttons and stuff. Eventually I got the hang of things and I got to feel really badass and cool for a while. I didn’t want it to end! I know this action-packed shot might look like a skinny confused kid with bad posture messing around in my backyard, but it felt exactly like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Here is a more accurate depiction of events:

aliens

Pin away.

bobcat2

Next came this second backhoe. It was bigger and more powerful than the first. They started to tackle the pile we’d made the day before and load it into a dump truck. I wasn’t allowed to drive this one.

We thought it would take maybe 6 loads of the dump truck to clear the yard. After a while everyone lost count, but the final tally was somewhere close to 20. Insanity.

bobcat3

The final day of work involved THIS. It was so awesome. I definitely was not permitted to operate this thing, but it was pretty amazing to watch. It cut through the asphalt like butter and was just generally the coolest thing that’s ever happened.

This is when I told the neighbors I was building a pool.

After all the removal was more or less completed, they worked on compacting the newly-exposed soil and grading the yard out and making everything look less like the post-apocalypse.

garageafter

Anndddd…DONE! It’s so weird to see the back of the garage like this! Now you can really see where the window is missing, which was relocated at some point to the laundry room. I’m tempted to say that a long (longgg) term goal might be to put a couple of french doors on this side of the garage and a fire pit/conversation zone situation in this area. Could be kind of amazing? Maybe a pergola of some kind?

There’s about 5 feet of space between the left side of the garage and the fence line, which I think I’d like to pave with salvaged bricks and use to store our garbage cans and compost. It’ll be nice to have them out of sight! That will free up the space on the other side of the garage for some plants, like maybe a simple boxwood hedge or something. As I mentioned before, to replace the old driveway I’ll probably install two strips of bluestone and some ground cover like Creeping Jenny. As you can see, the old gate is ENORMOUS (much bigger than it needs to be) and falling apart, so replacing the fencing on this side of the house is next on my fencing hit-list. Not only will it be a big functional improvement, but we’ll also have replaced all of the chain-link facing the street, which I’m really excited about. Old busted-up chain-link fencing is also a huge bummer.

after2

As for the rest of the cleared space, it’s just so exciting to have this blank canvas now! I think replacing the rest of the chain link with wood fencing will go a longgggg way toward making the backyard feel more private, and adding some tall trees along the fence line will also help immensely. That building you see in the back is a commercial business—it’s not like it’s super busy or anything (despite their enormous parking lot…), but getting some more separation from it will still be really nice. I think most of this area will likely end up just being grass for the dogs, but I do like the idea of doing some kind of really long raised bed in the back for a vegetable/herb garden.

Anyway. Big dreams.

Before that stuff can all happen, though, we need to get some fill dirt! I didn’t even think about this beforehand (I know, I know…) but removing 20 dump trucks of material is…a lot of stuff. Unless we want to end up with a pond in the middle of the backyard when it rains or snows heavily, now we need to get fill dirt brought in and grade out the land. The last thing I ever really envisioned paying for is dirt, but I’ve been assured that I will be hugely sorry if I don’t just bite the bullet and do it before trying to do any landscaping/grass-planting, etc. It’s pretty much the most boring thing I can imagine, but that’s how it goes sometimes!

I’m not exactly rushing to do the fill dirt thing while I’m working on digging out the grass and weeds and crap in the front yard. It’s nice to be able to just fill a wheelbarrow and dump it all in the newly excavated area in the back, and might even end up saving us a little bit in the long run. If we have the dirt, we might as well use it, right? I don’t want to buy a bunch of dirt and then end up with more dirt and nowhere for it to go. That just seems unwise.

And now I’m writing a blog post about dirt. Awesome. I’m so cool and trendy.


87 Comments

  1. Did you save any of the rubble and gravel to put under your new bluestone driveway?
    Exciting times – brave, brave people!

    • No…since we were relying on huge machines to do all the heavy lifting, it was too hard/impractical to try to separate usable gravel/rubble from the rest of the waste. I’m sure we’ll end up having to bring new stuff into certain areas to accomplish what we want, but most of these plans probably aren’t going to happen for a while, and they could change, and…I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when the time comes!

  2. Awesome work. That will really change your outdoor space. You’ll be able to have a nice summer party!
    Dogs are really really tough of grass, so you’ll want to do your research to see what will hold up to them before you buy any.

    • My neighbours have a Rotti and a smaller unknown breed dog and then they occasionally dog-sit for friends and relatives and they have a beautiful green backyard lawn. And no, there’s no gravel section off to the side where they trained their dogs to “go”. A solution must be out there somewhere …

      And build your backyard living spaces bigger than you think you’ll need. I kept on insisting our outdoor deck be larger and spouse thought it was too big. Nope. You have the room, go big. People are living outside more and more; think dining table, bbq area, lounge area. Paramount to a stay-cation if you’re trying to save money in the long run.

      • Another commenter mentioned this, but apparently white clover looks similar to grass but is relatively maintenance-free AND immune to dying off due to dog pee/poo. I really think we might do that! I don’t really care about having grass…I’ve never totally understood the appeal! So much work, fertilizers, mowing, watering…

        Yes, I have serious plans for backyard living space. Someday, when we have some money to spend, there will be a BIG deck on the back of the house…big enough for a dining area and all that. It’s going to be awesome! I wish we could just do it ALL RIGHT NOW. :)

  3. Why did I never realize how big your backyard is? The possibilities, the awesomeness that will unfold. I can’t wait to see what you will do.

    • Yeah, it’s large, especially since we’re in the city! I think because our house pre-dates the majority of the neighborhood, we have sort of an odd-sized double-lot…it’s pretty amazing to have so much space to work with. Definitely full of possibilities!

  4. Are you *sure* the dogs need grass? Grass is kind of a pain to look after. In my experience dogs are super happy rootling about in gardens also. Diggin’ things up, shoving their nose in places, burying other things, chewing on tree trunks… one of ours seems think standing inside a shrub is like, the best thing ever. He will stand there, a branch across his face, almost hidden, frozen still, for like, half an hour at a time. Weird canine.

    But if *you* want grass, grass it is. Though I like the sound of the firepit.

  5. RE dogs & gardens: if you do a raised bed make sure it’s dog proofed. My friends did a garden plot in their yard and their two dogs ate all the starts. You have such great sunlight along that fence line though and, at least in Portland, everyone has a garden these days. Tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce and beans would be nice back there. Also, yes, my friend’s backyard looked sad with the two large dogs in it tearing things up. They put up a gated fence to keep part of the yard green.

  6. Hi, saw this on Facebook and glad I came over to read. Really enjoyed the ride and admire all the work your doing in your yard.

  7. When you pick out at type of grass, try to find one that is hardy and resistant to dogs. It seems strange, maybe, but some varieties of grass stand up better to all the running, digging, and relieving that dogs will do on a lawn.

  8. Last week my neighbor had to install a new septic tank. Very expensive unforeseen ordeal, with heavy machinery and disposal of a lot of dirt. Like you I have asphalt from a previous owner, and I want to do high beds for a vegetable garden. So I needed dirt.

    Fortunately the neighbor’s dirt is perfect for plants, so I proposed the workers dumped it with me. Otherwise it would have been driven 50+ km to a dump site, where the neighbor would have to pay to leave it. Might I suggest you call around local builders, and check if anyone needs to have decent dirt removed..? Perhaps you could call companies specialised in the handling of such transports…

    • At least where I live there are multiple posts on Craigslist every day looking for people to take away fill dirt. It would help to have regular access to a pickup or something, but could at least reduce the amount you need to buy if you could get some that way.

  9. This.

    This is what our efforts in our home are about. Also, using heavy equipment and tools is also what most children dream about (boys and girls, just ask them, they do). Really glad you got to do this.

  10. You have me hooked, line and backhoed on this blog. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get fired for spending far too much time at work getting caught up

    as for the fill…sometimes you can get “clean fill” for free…I’ve seen signs many times for clean fill..people wanting it..or wanting to get rid of it….so check the local papers…

    was in Rhinebeck at the beginning of the month…not far from Kingston so I’m familiar with the lay of the land..beautiful Hudson Valley..

    love the firepit idea…go for it..eventually.

  11. What a relief for you! Chainlink fencing and asphalt paving always look so bleak around houses. Regarding the dirt: you don’t want just any old fill if you’re planning to grow plants and grass. Does your community compost leaves? Many towns do, and they offer the resulting compost for a nominal fee, or free. Compost is the best, the deeper the better. Buying topsoil scraped from the surface of someone else’s property just seems wrong to me.

    • I don’t know about the compost thing! I’ll definitely look into it. We need a TON of dirt to make things with the yard right again (like, two enormous truckloads), so I think we’ll probably use fill and top it with topsoil/compost…maybe even depending on how our initial grass-growing efforts go.

    • I’ll second this – Call up your public works department and see if you can get compost from the city. It is usually incredibly cheap and sometimes they’ll truck it in for you for free, too. We built a series of 5 tiered 6’x16′ raised beds on a hill (need more hassle in your life? built shit on a hill with no way to make sure the lines are plumb) and had the city dump 18 cubic yards of compost in our driveway for about $100. It saved us about $400-500 just on dirt cost. Whatever our compost is made of is utter magic, too. I’ve got 7′ tall amazonian tomatoes and hyperproductive mountains of zucchini.

  12. It’s a great thing that you scooped out all that gravel – you don’t want anything that’s been in such close contact with asphalt left in your yard (ick).
    Now what you want is not “dirt” or “clean fill” – you want “topsoil”. The good stuff, full of humus and little organisms, enriched by years of being close to the surface and growing things.
    Trust me on this one. The house I grew up in was part of a small single-family home development where a farm had been. Here was the construction process: scrape off the rich farm topsoil and sell it for extra profit; build the homes on the remaining heavy clay. I can’t even imagine how much mulch my father applied over the years, turning the blasted wasteland of a corner property, full of yellow mud, into a pleasant landscape of trees and shrubs with seasonal color.
    Save yourself 20 years of effort and put topsoil in your backyard!
    Also – sometimes folks nearby have leveled their yard for drainage and post on craigslist for someone to haul away nice topsoil… it could happen.

  13. Oh my god, what an amazing transformation! I can’t wait to see what happens next, a clean slate is an amazing and awfully scary thing (not to scare you.. but it is!) I’m going thru the same ideas with landscaping right now and it’s so hard to envision something that’s just not there yet!

    • It is pretty intimidating!! It definitely makes me want to get the fence in, if only so the neighbors don’t have to look at my desolate backyard. This one’s going to take a while…:)

  14. What a difference! I agree with the other posts about dogs and gardens. Not always a great combo. Our neighbors have 2 large dogs and there is a pthway of dirt along the fence where the dogs run back and forth. Careful about dumping weeds from the front yard into the back. You don’t want to give them a new place to grow.

    • Yeah—I’ve had dogs my whole life, and even though they do take a toll on lawns, it’s nothing compared to how they can trample a garden! I’ve found that certain plants can stand up to dogs really well, though, so I’ll probably focus on those for garden beds in the back—hostas, astilbe, various ornamental grasses and ground covers all seem to fair pretty well.

  15. I second the comments about the difference between fill and topsoil. This place is going to look amazing when you’re through. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

  16. We’re those annoying people with six cars, two vintage campers, snowmobile trailer, dirtbikes, etc. etc. so this much asphalt looks like a dream *to me* but I totally see how its ugly and why you wanted it removed. We’re in the middle of fencing and gardening at our new house, so I have much excitement towards your future posts.

  17. Amazing. If you’re planning to make this space – or part of it – a garden of some kind, considering including soil amendments (ie, manure, compost, etc) in your dirt plans. You will be glad you did! If you want ideas, suggestions, etc right from your neck of the woods, check out Margaret Roach’s excellent garden website awaytogarden.com. (I’m not Margaret nor in any way affiliated with her. I just think she knows her garden stuff but good!) Can’t wait to see what you do next!!

    • Thank you, Rose! I think we’ll definitely amend the soil where necessary, but my dirt guy assures me that the fill he’s planning to bring will grow grass…I really just need to keep costs down, and we need a TON of dirt, so I don’t think using ALL topsoil/compost is an option.

      • I know! I know! Compost/manure/partially decomposed mulch ain’t cheap but it’s so worth while to do as much as you can from the start. It’s like prepping before painting. Margaret Roach has some leads on manure/mulch combo (http://awaytogarden.com/mulch-faqs/) from a local-to-her and perhaps local-to-you farmer. I find that buying by the cubic yard is the cheapest way to go – bags of manure/compost are insanely expensive. You might also get some ideas from your local extension agent. Maybe you can just plot out where you’re going to have beds and dump the good stuff there, leaving the less-amended soil for grass. I’ve gardened without good prep and with good prep – and there is no comparison. The shrubs and trees I’ve got now (as well as perennials) are so much healthier. And because I knew that I had really good soil, I was confident buying cheaper plants – often small or a little “sad” looking – because I knew they would thrive in good soil. And thrive they have! (Some are also alarmingly huge – I’ve got a LImelight hydrangea that now tops out at 10′ – yowzuh!)

  18. 20 loads hauled away? wow!! that’s just incredible – it must feel like you lost weight! And that Alien pic…priceless!
    Dogs love grass. That’s just science. HIGH FIVE! I love the vision off the garage with a pergola and fire pit…and then loads of grass – but I personally LOVE grass too (maybe I’m part dog). Sod is cheap here in the spring. I layed (laid?) my whole (kinda big) dog run for about $50 last spring! Instant Gratification. Well instant after a week of hard sweaty work. You might want to recruit some big friends with beer and steaks to help.
    Such a fun read! Wish there was one of these every.single.day. Thanks for including us in your adventure.

    • I wish I had time to post everyday! I don’t think I’d be able to get anything else done if I did, though! :)

      I have to look into the sod thing…this is a huge space, so I think it would just get super expensive, no matter what time of year! We’ll probably try growing from seed first and see how it goes.

  19. You are cool. After the fence blog posting, you’re my new hero in fact!

  20. Check Craigslist for dirt. I know it sounds CRAZY, but we are currently regrading our backyard to put in a patio, and we had to remove a TON of dirt. We would have had to pay to dispose of it somewhere, if our neighbor down the street didn’t happen to need that very same dirt. We were happy to get rid of it for free, and he was happy to take it for free. Win win!

  21. Daniel, you have some gardeners following your blog. Listen to them. Good dirt will pay for itself over and over again. All plants will grow better with a good base. It seems silly to pay for the better quality of dirt but it is so worth it. I have a dog and I love to garden. I have found leaving a 2-3 foot path at the back of the garden gives them a place to run/lie down without trampling anything (or minimally) and also gives the plants good air circulation.

    Another source of great garden advice is Deuce Cities Henhouse. Allison has fanastic advice/info and a great asethetic.

    • Yes, Allison does such a great job with her garden!! I’ve been following her blog for ages. :)

  22. Wow Daniel, major Rambo points for this one! I have always been very impressed by your home improvement skills – I’ve been following your blog for a long time – but this must be somewhat of a personal victory! :) I love how you’ll get an idea in your head and how you then just go and do it. That may sound simple, but it really isn’t. In this case the idea was sort of insane, but the results are – and will be even more – fantastic! Keep up the good work :) All the best from the Netherlands, Flor (Nordic Days Blog)

  23. Wowza. It’s nothing but shock and awe around here 24/7. Impressive. All your landscaping ideas sound beautiful. Re the lawn, make it happen fast before weeds get a chance to grow. (As soon as you get soil in which anything can grow.) Expensive roll-out turf or sprinkling grass seed around both seem to work very well but the key is to start with a weed free surface. Oh — and this is a HUGE backyard, which means a lot of work. A big lawn is actually relatively easy to care for, vs., say, a big vegetable garden, and it’s easy to find people who will mow it for you if you don’t have time. Sounds like a great plan to me.

  24. I had an opportunity to visit Kingston last summer. You are right, it is an amazing little city. We were making a pilgrimage to Keegan Ales. Funky little spot with great beer. We will return to the area someday, I hope.

    • Keegan Ales is super close to my house! It’s such a funny place. It’s made me kind of like beer, finally!

  25. Invest in good topsoil and you’ll be thankful for years to come. Trust me; greener, fuller, and more even grass and way less weeds.

  26. Good move. I don’t know why you felt like you had to defend the decision to remove ugly asphalt. Were there really people who thought you should keep it? And I think there are lots of us nagging you to get quality topsoil with compost mixed in, but seriously do it! Think of it this way, asphalt is a petroleum product, and the soil and gravel base beneath it is usually compacted to 95%, meaning there is very air left in the soil below. It’s gross. Poor soil.

    • Lots of people thought I should keep it! I think maybe I wasn’t clear about how much there was…

      I know, I know…I’ll try to get the best soil I can without breaking the bank.

  27. I love reading your blog. And I love reading the comments section. What a nice community of people. No assholes here. :)

  28. Daniel, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing – whether you’re tearing something apart or putting something back together again – your posts are always brilliantly written! And not just your sense of humour, but the structure of every sentence. You’re a natural. You didn’t learn to write like this at NYU, I’m sure.

    The yard looks amazing, and I can’t wait to see you transform it into a garden. The only thing I would say about the topsoil is that you will probably want to get it done in the summer, before the autumn and the rain. I really like the idea of making the garage more of a ‘summer house’ with the french windows – any way of re-using the ones that were in the sitting room?

    Your plumber is definitely one of the good guys. I hope he reads your blog along with the rest of us.

    • Thank you, Thel!

      And yes—I think if we ever did do the french door thing, we’d reuse the ones that we’re removing from the living room. They’re really very nice doors, and I think this would be a great spot for them!

  29. Hiya! I’ve been following this blog from when you lived in the city and am loving living vicariously through your home reno. I’ve been lurking and not commenting, but I feel I must. If you think you’re going to do ground-cover – beware. “Creeping Anything” will creep and kill anything you put in its way. Try vinca, or maybe a ground ivy if you must – but stay away from creepers… I’m so excited for you (and jealous that you got to drive a back-hoe.

    Fun times!

  30. We had a similar situation on a much smaller scale (I don’t think a backhoe could even fit in our tiny backyard, which was 100% covered in asphalt). We went the jackhammer route to remove it all, and then laid sod. I’m sad to say that I don’t think I removed enough of the gravel beneath, because within a couple months the sod looked terrible, and despite a couple reseeding efforts, it doesn’t change. So, props to you guys for going that extra mile to get at the gravel. Yes, it means more fill dirt, but it will be worth it if your yard doesn’t look like mine (although my splotchy grass STILL looks better than asphalt).

    • I’m SURE it does!! And serious props to you for jackhammering that—I can’t even imagine!

      A few people have mentioned this, but the soil under the asphalt is probably not so great (it’s been compacted, it hasn’t seen any organic matter for years…), so it might be a matter of amending the soil with composted manure/humus/topsoil to get the grass looking better. I don’t know much about this, though!

  31. Ya’ll need some sod and Roger Cook, immediately. That’s gonna turn into some awful mud and splatter when it starts raining.

  32. Hi-
    We moved to Beacon in 1999.

    A part of our backyard was covered in asphalt. We were told not to plant edibles where it had been, at least without changing out the soil.
    We took some out, put a brick patio over some, and a flower bed bed on some.

    Good luck! Kingston is really cool.

    Virginia

    • Yes, that seems like a good rule of thumb! I think we’ll plant any edibles in raised beds (which should keep them away from the dogs, too…), so it shouldn’t be an issue. Thank you!

  33. I’m looking forward to seeing your back yard take shape, but as I was reading, I kept thinking – oh, man. We are so doing the opposite, and I started second guessing myself! (Let me explain.) Our backyard is grass (although it’s much, much smaller than yours), and it’s just annoying and full of weeds, and we don’t want to mow it and every time after it rains, it’s just a big mud pit. So we decided that once we save up, we’ll have a beautiful concrete patch paved in, and we’ll line it with troughs of gorgeous flowers and create a “pee pit” along one side for our 2 Pitties. This way, the dogs can rubble and won’t get terribly muddy (not to mention, the concrete keeps their nails filed – almost alll the dog parks in Chicago are asphalt). We also imagine a little fire pit and some comfy chairs down the road… Anyway! It’s just really neat to see 2 totally different takes on grass vs. asphalt!

    • I get it, Kim! I think we’ll have an area like what you’re describing, but our backyard is much larger than a typical city lot——so we can really do both. Based on the area of grass we DO have, I know Mekko LOVES (LOVES LOVES LOVES) nothing more than running around in it, so like a lunatic dog parent I want to give her that!

  34. Make sure you consider how you will shovel your driveway when you put one in…not sure if I’m understanding your potential plan correctly of just doing 2 strips of stone where the tires go but that would be crazy hard to shovel. Unless you have a snow blower. Or not normally enough snow to shovel. Just something to keep in mind. :)

    • I think we might actually invest in a snowblower…we’re a double lot on a corner, which is great, but it also means we have two really long sides to shovel! Shoveling about killed us last winter.

      Theoretically the garage will be able to hold a car, too, and since we only have one, that’s a good option for winter parking. The bluestone strips might be more for summer and act as kind of a loading zone when we have to bring in 8,000 bags of this or a bunch of lumber or whatever, you know? There’s also ample street parking in the neighborhood, so I’m not really worried!

  35. frank gehry, the modernist architect, did some awesome things in his early career with chain link fencing and corrugated metal. jes’ sayin’.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=frank+gehry+chain+link&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=t-OtU-SgKpagyATl0IDgDQ&ved=0CB4QsAQ&biw=1276&bih=666

    • Ha! I’m not sure 1980s post-modernism and my 1840s house will mesh so well, but I’ll keep it in mind…:)

  36. Props to you Dan for giving Carl a shout-out via a link to his website. Helping a good contractor get more business is a great way to say “thanks for doing a great job.”

    I don’t think you’ve ever talked about the garage, (or did I miss it?) ’cause I didn’t realize until this post that the house even had one….. clue us in, Dan: do you use it? Does it have a future? Or is it gross and terrible?

    • I think I’ve mentioned the garage a few times, but I’m sure it was a while ago! So little has happened with the backyard prior to this…

      For a LONG time the garage was a dumping zone for all of the crap we were ripping out of the house. It was horrifying! I’ve finally basically cleared it out, and I’d like to make it kind of a workshop/tool space with the option to actually park a car in! We’ve never parked in it. It’s actually not all that gross and terrible…it could definitely use some work, but I guess it had some structural problems before the house went up for sale, so the real estate agent and the estate put some money into fixing it up. I have some ideas for it, but that just seems soooooo far down on the list right now!

  37. Careful of the Creeping Jenny. It’ll take over. I planted some thinking it would fill in around my other plants but it started to grow up into the other plants, choking them out. It was really difficult to pull it all out and a few years later I still have to dig out the odd, surviving sprig. Depending on light levels, you might want to use a type ajuga – compact, dense, hardy, low cover with nice dark leaves and lovely purple flowers for a bit in early summer. I’m a lazy gardener in Toronto and I think we have the same aesthetic, the ajuga is my go-to ground cover.

    • Good to know! I’ll keep an eye in it! I’ve planted some already in the front and so far it hasn’t really spread or done much of anything, but now I’m a bit nervous…

      • It was great for about 3 years while it got established, then it just took over. Do keep an eye on it. The roots don’t run deep but they form a thick network. New roots will start wherever the plant touches the ground so it does hold very fast. I loved the way it looked, it was a major drag to find out it was so aggressive.

        You might want to look at sweet potatoes (vine) as a ground cover. They are probably and annual in your zone but they are easy to grow, come in a nice range of colours and leaf shapes, grow fast, and won’t take over. As they grow you can just kind of wind the vine where you want it to be and will fill in nicely. http://www.onlineplantguide.com/Plant-Details/1254/

      • Amy, that’s funny about your ajuga love. I spent YEARS digging ajuga out of my previous yard and driveway, where it had wandered in profusion long after some earlier owner had planted it elsewhere. Tenacious stuff. Then I had to remove it from my neighbor’s yard, where it had spread, so her unwanted ajuga–originally from my yard–wouldn’t spread right back to me. If you can get tell it to “sit!” and it will stay where you put it, swell… and please tell me your secret. :)

      • Gillianne, what a drag. Mine is only spreading out a little bit per year, filling in on itself to a beautiful density, and not popping up anywhere else. I didn’t know it could be such a nuisance. Different growing conditions maybe? I am a truly lazy gardener. All of my plants have to be hardy and drought tolerant. Maybe my neglect has starved the ajuga of the energy it needs to move. Hmmm.

  38. How exciting to start with a blank slate! One great alternative to a turf grass lawn is white clover – it grows in shadier areas than turf, it is low maintenance (it doesn’t require fertilizer because it enriches the soil itself) and it doesn’t yellow in the spot where dogs make their, shall we say, contributions. http://cloverlawn.org/

    Happy gardening!

    • Huh, that’s great to know about! I’d totally do that. I don’t really care about grass at all, so if it’s better for the environment AND lower maintenance, I’d be down…

      • I totally support going with clover. I don’t understand why we’re so obsessed with perfectly trimmed grass lawns in this country.

  39. Okay Daniel. I’ll bite the bullet and be the one to ask: how much did that cost?! I’m in the same boat as you. Our 1930 home previously served as a personal care home for seniors and it seemed that every single one of them had a vintage car parked out back, so it’s asphalt everywhere. Like a concrete jungle where dreams go to die.

    My husband seems to think we can feasibly jack hammer it and throw a little bit away at a time, but I KNOW that’s a crazy idea and just want it GONE. Also, I’d give up my hypothetical first born to drive a backhoe.

    So if you wouldn’t mind sharing, can you give me an idea of the $$$ involved. Feel free to reply via email if you’d rather not talk dollars in the comments section. Also, I totally understand and respect if you chose not to share, but I would really appreciate just a ballpark quote. (I’m in Atlanta, so obviously pricing is different and I don’t have a Carl, but you know…) Thanks dude.

    • Yeah, if you have a ton if it like this, you DO NOT WANT TO JACKHAMMER IT. This was a huge, exhausting job, even with multiple men and huge machines. It still took them days and was really labor intensive. Just don’t do it.

      I still don’t know what the fill dirt situation is going to end up costing, but the removal was $1,900 (which included everything, like the disposal and whatnot). I have NO IDEA, though, if that’s normal or good or bad or whatever…honestly, it’s more than I wanted to spend (it always is, right?) but it doesn’t seem unreasonable given the amount of work they had to do. The best advice I can give is to call around to various contracting companies in your area and see if you can get some estimates…it should be free and will give you a better picture than I can!

      • Thanks so much! Very helpful and about what I was expecting, but it’s nice to have some kind of idea what we’re talking about here.

  40. To the best blog writer ever: You know who has awesome articles on garden design? MARTHA. She had this piece in the last year or so on a woman who turned her tennis courts into a raised bed garden, and specifically, she wanted it to be a relatively maintenance free since she had a full time job. Check it out. Every issue of Living seems to have some lovely landscaped garden piece with lots of good ideas (or good things, as it were). The current issue has a piece on hydrangeas and companion plants has me craving more hydrangea. My other suggestion is to research the plants approved/recommended to use in urban gardens (like city planned and maintained as part of the park service). I find that they tend to be maintenance free and disease resistant and pretty much impossible to kill. Lastly, I love anything that can be chopped to within 6 inches of the ground in the fall or early spring. Like all the different kinds of spirea. After the chop it’s new and perfectly shaped and sized again. Like magic. Oh, and, I love intersectional peonies. Expensive, but worth it.

    • Yes, Martha is the queen! I saw the tennis court piece, but I haven’t read the magazine in a bit…we get it in the mail, though, and save every issue, so I’ll spend some time looking back!

      I’m working my way through Martha Stewart’s Gardening Month by Month right now, which is just fabulously 80s/90s and fabulously Martha. There is just nobody like her. FLAW. LESS.

  41. Yay! I love it when you have a new post. Lots of great advice here in the comments. Can’t wait to see what you do next. And yes, your writing is consistently great.

  42. Who cares about the dirt, I love your tree. So sexy. I hope it survived all the heavy machinery wagging around it.

    • Me too! The tree kind of scares me…the base of the trunk is pretty rotted out and it has a lot of dead limbs…I think it’s on its last legs, honestly, but it keeps coming back! The leaves are pretty.

  43. Oh, your blog makes me feel better about my renovation ADD. I, too, have torn up every bit of my house–and the yard! And now we need a new roof. And the exterior needs to be painted… maybe after the bathroom and kitchen gut? Oh, it feels so good to see other folks (YOU!) with my affliction and in my plight and preference (GRASS? Why? What’s the charm?.) Whenever my husband points to the rooms-formerly-known-as-garage-and-office and are now the tool rooms I lead him to your blog and point to a few select entries. And then it’s back to setting up the miter saw and building a monster pergola and outdoor sectional. Fire up the compressor! Good luck with the next project on your list… Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

  44. Hey, love your work. Amazing. As far as dogs are concerned….you want some kind of grass. Otherwise your left with mud slop! With a BEAUTIFUL HOUSE as you do have, you don’t want that. Sometimes dogs diets can turn grass yellow-ish. In my personal experience healthy dog food lead to grass growth. The pee spots grass grew faster. I’ve never had grass die. ( I do feed my babies high quality food based on ingredients) I worked at a vet and pet store so I learned quick. Point being: Grow some kind of greenery! DON’T let those poor babies run around in dirt! :) I’m sure you wouldn’t anyways, just my penny.

    P.S. Ditch the 1st floor tub! You can put as much candles, bubbles and soothing music as you want but…… there is still Dead Dude Essence in that tub! lmao!

  45. P.S.S. Rocks can hurt pet feet, and you have a young medium-big dog so you want run around room. some kind of grass or green substance is much better on their feet then pebbles, rocks, ect. Not to mention mowing some grass wouldn’t hurt those calves, abdomen, and biceps! Think of it as a work out! I know I use to! I live in an apartment now…I wish I had a yard!

  46. P.S.S.S. I know I’m coming off as super annoying/insane but when it comes to planting around your house I would advice looking at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants

    Someone mentioned before: Hydrangea…….Toxic for dogs

    So just be careful of what you plant. :)

  47. If it will be a while before you get to the backyard, and it wouldn’t piss off the neighbors with the scent, you could see if there are any horse barns or similar nearby that would be happy to contribute horse manure! Often they have piles that are more aged and more composted- which are also obviously less smelly! You’ll prob want to let it compost longer before planting though. And mix in soil.

  48. Wooly thyme, aka creeping thyme i,s great for planting between pavers. And it smells nice when it is crushed, and recovers nicely.

    • My landlord used to use this instead of grass in the small lawn of our apartment building. It smelled so great and always looked nice too!

  49. LOVE what you guys are doing. Very inspirational. Just saw this film the other day: Back to Eden- you can watch for free here:

    Might be helpful when planning the landscape- especially in regards to soil/gardens. Long term, easy, and natural solutions that work. The guy does quote the bible a bit re: about the land- so if not your thing please don’t let that deter you. Very good info.

  50. You’re the funniest writer I’m reading these days!

  51. Wow, great work! We did a mini-landscaping project in our backyard and needed some dirt too. We ended up working something else out, but I was advised to contact a pool building company and enquire about clean topsoil/fill. As they excavate huge amounts of this from nearby yards to dig pits for pools, they’re usually happy to either let you have it or sell it very cheaply as it saves them disposing of it. And it’ll presumably be about the same quality as normal yard-dirt if you’re just going to grow grass. Best of luck with phase 2!

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