Every year it’s the same: I spend all winter being sad about the cold, and then spring and summer hit and I’m all like HOLD UP because that means I have to pick up where I left off with exterior work. The earlier I get to it the better because summers here are hot and muggy, but of course there are a finite number of hours in the day so the interior work slows way down. Which is sad, because the interior of my house is still…well, a work in progress, let’s say. A work in progress that’s occasionally frustrating to live in, that I have to force myself to de-prioritize during these warmer months because otherwise the exterior might, I dunno, get overtaken by weeds and die of neglect. Houses, man. Yards. They keep you busy. I do not recommend them if you value free time.
With so much work constantly happening both on the interior and exterior of the house, the backyard in particular has inched along veryyyy slowly. I’ve probably put more effort into the street-facing front and side gardens, primarily in the hope that a few decent-looking plants might distract from the…less charming aspects of my perpetually-being-renovated house. But the back? It’s basically a blank slate. I have a fence. I have some patchy grass. In terms of other amenities, my yard also offers a pile of chimney bricks, a steady supply of dog shit and toys laying around, a ton of irregular bluestone pieces, and a few scraggly plants I’ve stuck in the ground.
It’s not like I have acreage or anything, but I do have a really large yard for Kingston! It’s part of what I love about the house, but it’s also a lot to take care of. And a lot to figure out, because I want it to be a beautiful lush amazing (much more private!!!) paradise but I also find it kind of discouraging because of how much time and money I’ve already dumped into it.
Yes, you read that right. Those two pictures above are the products of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of hard work. CAN’T YOU TELL? DO YOU FEEL MOTIVATED YET?!?
I guess I know it could be worse, because oh boy has it been worse! Sometimes when I’m out here feeling so sad and dejected about my barren landscape, I have to remind myself of how the majority of the yard was asphalt when I bought this place! The whole yard was covered in snow the first time I saw the house, so this actually came as a surprise at the first or second walk-through, but at that point I was too in love with the house for a little blacktop to scare me off.
“We’ll just get it removed!” I proclaimed with confidence.
And it did get removed…to the tune of about $2,000, if memory serves, because I have refused to think about it since. YIKES. It took 5 full days and multiple backhoes and excavators to get it done. The thing I didn’t totally realize at the time is that under the asphalt would be a layer of large gravel (item #4, if you wanna get all technical about it), so you have to remove a lot of material to get back down to something resembling clean-ish dirt.
Like, a lot a lot. About TWENTY dump trucks worth.
At the end, they did what they could to flatten everything out and left this attractive scene, which soon started to fill in with weeds. Sure, I’ll take it!
Then it rained. And rained a few more times. And that area that had been covered with asphalt? Turned into a very large, shallow pond. Which, in the winter, turned into a sheet of ice. It’s a shame that depth gets so lost in photos because it really doesn’t portray how bad this was!
The lumpy piles of dirt behind Mekko is all the grass I excavated out of the front garden by hand and then rolled back here in a wheelbarrow. I adorably thought this would solve the problem or at least improve things, but the dent it made was…negligible.
A little while later, I transported a couple pick-up truck loads of dirt from Bluestone Cottage’s front yard, since that yard needed to be graded down and this one needed to be graded up. “This’ll fix it!” I thought to myself again.
At this point, the availability of free solutions had seemed to run out, and with the new fence in place I really wanted to start getting the backyard in shape! So I stuck the plastic stakes from Lowe’s into the ground and attached a long length of neon pink nylon twine between them, pulling VERY taught. This helped me see where the lowest points were and build up as needed. I considered getting a delivery of soil, but the delivery was kind of expensive, and even with a soil calculator (like this one!), I didn’t feel confident that I had any idea how much I actually needed. I also liked the idea of bringing it into the yard in manageable chunks rather than having the landscaping place deposit a mountain-sized pile that I’d have to just chip away at, blocking my driveway until it was all gone. Hauling it myself seemed, at the time, to make a lot of practical sense.
Not that long before, I got a new car—a practical Subaru SUV. I kept saying that perhaps a pick-up truck would be a better investment at least for this period in my life when hauling large and heavy things is such a regular occurrence, but everyone in my life seemed to think this was patently ridiculous. So instead I got this utility trailer, the bed of which is slightly over 4×8 feet, meaning it’s perfect for drywall and plywood and lumber. I subsequently learned that the trailer is a complete pain in the ass, and difficult to steer in reverse, and in short order I managed to crunch both front corners of my bumper and a rearview mirror while trying to maneuver it. More recently the trailer became unhitched on a job site and smashed the trunk in, too. I hate that thing with the fire of a thousand suns. But also I need it. Because I didn’t buy the pick-up.
SO ANYWAY, now my still-new-ish car is super fucked and the trailer is not holding up annnnddddddd next time maybe I should listen less to those around me when it comes to my driving/hauling needs. It’s all very stupid. That’s not what we’re here to talk about though. We’re talking about the much more exciting topic of dirt.
I took my jacked up car with my jacked up utility trailer to a local landscaping place, where they sell fill dirt. Things like this (mulch, gravel, etc) are usually sold by the “yard,” which you can think of as a 3′ x 3′ x 3′ cube. There are different types of dirt—topsoil is higher quality and full of nutrients and shit like that, and lesser soils are cheaper and good for fill but not great for growing gardens and stuff. I decided to start with cheaper fill, and then finish off with a layer of better topsoil.
About 1 yard of fill fits in that trailer, or around 2,000 pounds, so thus commenced my new weekend tradition of getting as many loads into the yard as I could before it became either completely unbearable or the place closed. Because my trailer doesn’t have a hydraulic lift or anything fancy like that, I had to drive the trailer into the yard, climb in, unload the soil a shovel-full at a time, and then rake it out and level it.
Each time it seemed like SO MUCH DIRT and each time all that dirt barely made a dent.
So I kept having to go back to get more dirt.
Bring in the trailer, shovel it all out, spread, and go back for more. Did I mention how hot and muggy summers are here? This is the worst game I’ve ever played.
This was also getting expensive. A yard of fill from the landscaping place was about $45, so all of a sudden I’m spending literal hundreds of dollars and an obscene amount of effort to bring a bunch of crappy soil into my yard. THE JOYS OF HOMEOWNERSHIP!
After a couple weekends of this, I was bringing demolition debris of some variety to the dump, as I do. And then I saw something over yonder, in the distance.
Mounds. Mounds of dirt. JOE! TELL ME ABOUT THAT DIRT!
Joe is my friend at the dump. I like to bring him a milkshake if I go. Joe likes milkshakes.
Turns out, it’s county compost! From the county! Made at the dump! Literal garbage dirt! This is the dirt for meeeeeee!
It’s actually kind of cool—if you look closely at those mounds, on the far right there’s a pile of newly deposited branches and leaves and stuff. This is where the county’s yard waste bags end up, food scraps from the restaurant composting program, etc. There, they fester for a while, until enough of it has broken down to go into pile #2, and so on. Once it’s gone through this sequence, it goes into that red machine you see on the far left, which essentially grinds it up, breaking down any remaining branches or things that decompose slowly. Then it goes into another pile and continues to brew until somebody who might be me buys it. Cool. Gross. I like it.
Because it’s all compost, I assume this soil is actually much better than the soil I’d been getting, AND it was $35/ton (which is about a yard), so $10 cheaper than the landscaping place.
So I got a load.
Drive it home. Deposit the dirt. Spread the dirt. Go back again.
All told, I repeated this procedure THIRTY TIMES. Which means I moved, out of the trailer and into the yard by hand, roughly SIXTY THOUSAND POUNDS of dirt. Just dirt. It was SO much more than I anticipated.
This has to be the least satisfying way I have ever managed to blow through more than a thousand dollars. I stopped keeping track because it was just too depressing.
BUT HARD WORK PAYS OFF! JUST LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! It just feels like such a SANCTUARY from the outside world and…oh wait, sorry wrong slide. That’s Bunny William’s garden.
LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! LUSH! VERDANT! A TRUE OUTDOOR LIVING SPACE FIT FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!
Fortunately this is not a current picture, and things have improved somewhat steadily since that time. I’ve been terrible about sharing backyard progress, I think because I keep waiting for some part of it to look great. And what am I going to do, write a whole post about…moving 30 tons of dirt?
Then I decided that’s exactly what I’ll do, because progress is progress. No lie, it BLOWS that it took this much time and effort and money to get to this very barren depressing square 1, but a lot of landscaping work (hell, renovation work!) is a very long slog that only starts to feel good when all that slow progress accumulates to something that finally feels worthwhile. We have a couple of summers worth of work to catch up on, though, so in lieu of stunning After! images that are realistically probably a decade away, let’s just try to enjoy this whole process for the grueling and occasionally exciting operation that it is! I guess.