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GUYS, I MADE BACKYARD! AT BLUESTONE COTTAGE!
If you missed my earlier posts where I showed you the “before” space, or how I laid concrete and built my super nice fence, or how I cobbled together a little storage shed, go check those out first! A lot of work has gone into this 500-ish square foot outdoor space and I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of the results.
WANT A TOUR?! OK. Let’s go back to a couple of months ago…remember this view?
Once in a while, I actually get a little frustrated that I can’t invite all my blog people over to see something in person, and this is one of those times. I hope it looks good in pictures because this space is SO CUTE in real life. Not even my own house has a backyard that feels like a private sanctuary, but this one totally does. It’s so peaceful! I see the appeal!
Man. It was so bleak.
New fence! Shed! Plants! Pea gravel! String lights! I ended up really liking my funny shed more than I realized I would, and it’s so functional. Just having a place outdoors to put outdoor-related items is so nice, and really makes the whole renovation feel a little more manageable to have that stuff out of the way, particularly as cold weather approaches. I don’t need all that stuff in the way and floating around the house while I’m trying to renovate it! I love you, scrappy shed thing.
REMEMBER THE HUGE (defunct) OIL TANK?! The falling-down fence on the north side? That unruly Mulberry tree?!
I felt a little immediate tinge of OH NO WHAT DID I DO when Edwin and I took down the Mulberry tree, but I’m so glad I did. Sometimes a blank slate (except for the Maple tree, which stayed!) is really the best strategy, and now that there are new plants I don’t miss it AT ALL. Speaking of plants…
I promise, that IS the same view! Just everything about it is different!
Not really knowing if this house is going to be sold or rented, I wanted to keep the backyard simple, low-maintenance, flexible, and functional, and I think this accomplishes that! Let’s talk about it!
Allow me to first address my favorite recurring controversy: PEA GRAVEL. You guys have strong feelings about pea gravel and I respect strong feelings. Many of you like pea gravel. Many of you REALLY do not like pea gravel. So let me tell you about pea gravel and why I chose it for here.
- I really just love it. To me it’s classic, pretty, and has that nice crunchy sound underfoot.
- It’s cheap! And fast! I know there are inexpensive paver solutions available (I’ve always loved these from Lowe’s!), but my budget was maxed out and pea gravel is a really inexpensive way to cover a big area—cheaper than anything else I could find, really. How inexpensive depends: if you need to cover a HUGE space, you’ll likely spend less money getting a bulk delivery of pea gravel from a stone yard than using the individual bags that you can get from Lowe’s. But for a space this size, and the sake of convenience, the bags worked out PERFECTLY. To calculate how much you’d need for a given project, just use a cubic yards calculator!
- Not all pea gravel installations are the same! If you do a search for how exactly to install a pea gravel path or patio, you will be met with an astonishing variety of different installation instructions. Some people put down landscape cloth and a few inches of pea gravel and call it done. Some people do landscape cloth, a layer of crushed stone, and then a thinner layer of pea gravel. Some people put the pea gravel right on the dirt! The point is that everyone thinks their method is best and will tell you as much, but a better installation should lead to a better result that maybe avoids some of the issues people talk about with pea gravel.
- It’s no big deal if it doesn’t work out. If weeds or something else become a major issue, OK! I have myself a nice level stone base for pavers, and it didn’t cost me so much time or money that this would cause major personal upset.
So anyway. Here’s what I took away from my mess of gravel-related confusion.
Hot take #1: Less is more. One of the major complaints I hear about pea gravel is that it feels unstable, like your foot digs down a few inches into it with every step. This happens when the pea gravel is too deep (3-4 inches maybe) and not supported by a more stable base. It’s hard to keep the pea gravel looking nice and even, so it can make things look sort of sloppy. Over time, the edges of the landscape fabric gets kicked up and exposed, and the whole thing looks a mess. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Hot take #2: Hello my name is Daniel Kanter, and I do not like landscaping cloth. I get what it’s for. I get how to install it. I get that it’s not a material you want to penny-pinch on because you get what you pay for quality-wise. But in my (admittedly somewhat limited, because I do not like it) experience, it inevitably ends up getting exposed, looking ratty, and actually growing the weeds it’s meant to prevent? And then it has to be redone until it happens again? I think it’s just not for me. I do not want to be told otherwise. I would rather pick weeds and treat areas with vinegar than battle landscape fabric.
So anyway. I phoned a friend! Named Lori! Who I don’t actually know, but she’s a gardening guru who reads this blog and had shared her perspective on pea gravel best practices before, so this felt like a trusted source. Then I only kind of did what she told me, because I’m not a good student and there is something wrong with my brain.
It was basically a 7 step process:
- Mark out the area! There are so many right angles in this yard that I thought a kinda curvy border would look best. I used a garden hose to get the general shape.
- Edge! Pea gravel likes to travel so needs to be contained with an edging material. This could be pressure-treated lumber, brick, stone, plastic, steel, or something else! I had planned to use recycled chimney bricks, but it felt like…too much? Instead I used a black aluminum edging from Lowe’s that I actually bought for the front yard HALF A DECADE AGO and have been storing in my garage since. At least I’m prepared?
- Base rock: With the edging in place, I saturated the ground with water and spread about 2 inches of this drainage rock from Lowe’s, which is a lot like what we call Item #4 regionally. It’s a larger angular rock that makes a stable base for paving, footings, frost walls, that kind of thing. The major difference I would say is that Item #4 generally comes with a lot of stone dust, whereas this bagged drainage rock is very clean and uniform in size.
- Tamp! I used this hand tamper from Lowe’s, but for a large area it might be worth renting a gas-powered compactor. The goal is to sink the angular stone into the wet soil and compact to create a solid, stable base that doesn’t move when you walk around on it.
5. If I were doing it over again, I think at this stage I would have added some stone dust to really “glue” this base layer together. Where you live, stone dust might be decomposed granite—we don’t seem to have that here.
6. With the base prepped and compacted, spread about 1/2″-1″ of pea gravel. Spread it and tamp it again to really work the pea gravel into the base layer—the small round pea stones will kind of lock into the angular stone base and keep things nice and solid.
7. Finally, water it all! There’s a fair amount of sand in the bag with the pea stone, but a quick watering washes all of that down into the gravel and the base and reveals the real color variation in the stone, which is so pretty!! This is another reason I love this bagged gravel from Lowe’s—I love the beige-y tone of the pea stone as opposed to the more flat grey pea gravel that’s available locally in my land of bluestone.
And there ya go! It will be better to treat weeds than try to pull them, because you don’t want to disturb that layer of base rock and let it come to the surface. Obviously I can’t tell you how this will hold up over time, but I have high hopes! It looks great and feels amazing underfoot—no sinking or sliding around, which also helps keep the stone contained to where it’s supposed to be. I also tested it out barefoot and it’s totally comfy to walk on! And I have not had a single stone embed itself in the sole of my shoes. I AM CALLING IT A PEA GRAVEL SUCCESS!
Let’s talk plants! While I think it’s safe to say the renovation of this house has had its share of difficulties and failures, one thing seemingly immune to this trend has been the stuff I planted in the front yard shortly after I bought it! This is hardly a brag because I can’t take much credit—five years ago I got a bunch of plants from Lowe’s, stuck ’em in the ground, and pretty much let nature take its course between infrequent efforts at maintenance. Amazingly, almost everything I planted has not only survived but THRIVED, meaning I had an actual excess of fairly mature plants at my disposal to transplant back here! And as a bonus, I already know they’re hardy and don’t need much in the way of maintenance or care. So I dug up plants from the front that had gotten overcrowded and then spent a while just moving them around until I settled on placements that felt nice. This way, I could identify what I’d need to really fill out the space and keep my new purchases minimal and strategic. I get overwhelmed at garden centers, so I like to have a general idea of what I’m looking for before I venture out.
BTW, I would just like to note that ornamental grass (pretty sure it’s Maiden Grass) back there—it crisped up and died within a couple days after I transplanted it, but it SHOULD BE green and lush and pretty, kinda like how it looks in the photo above. Hopefully it survives and comes back next year! We’ll all find out together! For now I’lll cut it back to about 6″ from the ground and wait. I’m not entirely confident this corner is sunny enough for it.
My Lowe’s garden center was admittedly a little sparse the day I went plant shopping, so I went over to a local nursery and kinda fell in love with this enormous Dr. Seuss-y tree for the back corner, which is a Purple Fountain Beech! Of course with my new pick-up truck lifestyle, getting it home was no biggie. I’m telling ya…I love having a truck.
It should eventually grow to about 25 feet tall but maintain a kind of compact columnar shape so it won’t take up too much space. I love purple foliage! And the tree is so sculptural and cool.
In front of the tree are 3 small Olga Mezitt Rhododendrons from Lowe’s, which might get a bit bigger but are pretty matured at this point. They have pretty pink flowers in the spring, and should tolerate the part sun conditions in this corner of the yard!
Toward the center of the garden bed, I put a Holly shrub! It should fill out and grow a little higher the the fence, and keep some nice evergreen interest in the winter (it’s planted further from the fence than it looks in this photo). I grew up with Holly trees in the backyard and have always had a soft spot for them.
I also got real into randomly placing stones?? I like them?? The house is named Bluestone Cottage after all, and these (blue)stones were just hanging around the property waiting for a use. I love this little monolith situation, which is buried a down a few inches below the mulch to stay upright. I dunno!
Toward the front of the planting bed, I transplanted a dwarf Japanese Juniper from the front and put a big rock underneath part of it to creep over. Why not!
That variegated plant on the right is an Emerald Gaiety Euonymus from Lowe’s, but transplanted from the front yard. I planted a couple of these and they’ve really spread out quickly into this nice dense plant that’s somewhere between a ground cover and a shrub. I may move another one to my house.
By the way! I used my old faithful black mulch in the planting bed, which always makes things look sharp immediately! Keep an eye out for sales on this stuff—this mulch was $2/bag when I got it!! As things fill in, hopefully the garden will require less mulch and I’ll probably switch to something more natural since it won’t be so visible.
Toward the base of the maple tree, it’s Hosta City! The variegated ones (Minuteman Plantain Lily) were from Lowe’s and transplanted from the front yard, and the solid green ones are from MY house, where there is a never-ending supply of hosta to split and move. Hosta just needs to be cut back once in the fall and split every few years, but otherwise is no maintenance and does well in low light.
Over by the shed, I stuck a Green Velvet Boxwood! Boxwoods are such troopers—this one has now been transplanted from the front yard of Olivebridge Cottage (where it spent almost a year out of the ground on the edge of a construction site!), to the front yard of Bluestone, and now to the back. It’s been through a lot but seems healthy! I hope it grows and fills out.
Finally, I wanted to put SOMETHING between the two kitchen windows on the back of the house, so I picked up a climbing hydrangea! I really hope it does well—this area appears to never really get direct sun, so selecting a plant that would survive was tricky. Climbing hydrangeas are so beautiful though, and should do well in low light! We shall see!
Real quick shout-out to that amazing trough-style planter! I found it at Lowe’s and thought it would be perfect here, and then I tried to put it in my cart. HOLY COW. The thing is solid concrete and weighs 160 pounds!!! Especially for $80, I honestly think it’s a beautiful piece and super versatile for all sorts of situations and styles. This is the “espresso” color, but it also comes in this really beautiful soft white/beige tone that I considered as well.
The rust-resistant metal trellis is also from Lowe’s, and I love how simple and clean it is. And the price was great too—under $40!
Pls pray for my climbing hydrangea. I love this whole set-up and do not want it to fail.
In terms of space planning, I tried to keep things flexible and multi-functional, while also taking light conditions for the plants into consideration. Strangely difficult! Which is to say that I intentionally didn’t go all-out with built-in seating or dining or raised beds. I wanted to maintain some flexibility in the plan for a future owner/renter to use the space how they want to!
When you’re looking at the front of the house, access to the backyard is via a 4-ft walkway on the left side. This path was a big mess—lots of nice bluestone slabs in need of leveling and re-setting, with invasive weeds growing up through all the cracks and over the old fence. I think the original bluestone can be put to much better use in the front of the house, so we pulled it up and laid a concrete path in that space instead, which so far is working out GREAT. It’s not especially charming or beautiful but it is very practical and easy to maintain, which is nice in an area that’s really just a passage from one area to another rather than a space you hang out in. I decided to extend the path about 12′ past the back wall of the house, which creates a small “zone” where there could easily be benches, a couple lounge chairs, potted plants, additional enclosed storage, a couple deck boxes, bar seating…lots of options! If I were living here, I think I’d want a small grill and some kind of outdoor kitchen cart next to it with some countertop and storage space for the grilling utensils and whatnot.
Speaking of, HOW CUTE is that hunter green Weber grill? I recently watched a movie where they had one in this fabulous hot orange-red, and I would like to submit a request for a re-issue of that color too. I love a classic Weber grill. Of course, pretty much any grill would be fine here as long as it’s a safe distance from the fence. Even a propane or gas one, although I’m team charcoal all the way.
COME AT ME.
(But please don’t; I don’t like violence.)
Of course, the REAL star of the show here is STRING LIGHTS. God, I love a string light. Like more than most things on this earth.
Specifically, these are the commercial-grade Portfolio LED string lights from Lowe’s, and they are NICE. You pay a premium for LED bulbs instead of traditional incandescents, but the LED bulbs are super efficient and should last BASICALLY forever which is perfect for a property I’m not living in. I can happily report that the bulbs themselves are cute (no weird white band around the base, perfect shape and size) and the light they put off is perfectly warm. I love them. I’m mad that they’re here instead of my house, haha. I used four strands of lights in all!
Other little details! I was going to build a little birdhouse out of scrap, but then I saw this one at Lowe’s and it was cute and affordable and took a project off my list, so therefore it had to be mine.
I stained it black with the same Cabot opaque stain I used on the shed, and it’s so cute. You don’t necessarily see it immediately so it’s like a nice little surprise! I hope a birdy moves in and raises a family of goth baby birds in there.
Oh by the way: yes, the windows are new. They are replacement windows. As you can imagine, I am full of FEELINGS and we will need to talk about this another time when I am emotionally prepared to take you through my window journey. They are by Pella and admittedly are extremely nice.
So. If I were living in this house, I think I’d nix the dining table altogether and get an outdoor sofa, two chairs, and a propane fire pit kinda thing because I LOVE FIRE and also lounging. That would have been a big budget-buster, though, so I’ll leave that to future occupants to figure out.
Because I’m not living in this house and I’m a cheap lil’ bastard, I liberated this cute vintage outdoor set from the scrap metal pile of a local hotel, ha! It’s not in the greatest shape, but still serviceable, so I cleaned it up, sanded down the tabletop a bit, and hit it with a couple coats of this amazing Rust-Oleum gloss white spray paint. So fresh and so clean!
Now it’s a perfect place to enjoy an empty mug and a casually-yet-strategically-placed tea towel!!! Two of my favorite Sunday morning rituals. :) <3
WHAT. ELSE. I *may* have taken more photos of this space than I really have words to say about it.
You know what I love even more than this backyard? This backyard…AT NIGHT.
Here I have traded the empty coffee mug for a very real cocktail and tried to capture the night vibe. I really should own a better camera than my iPhone for situations such as this. IT. IS. LUXURY.
SO COZY. I’ve been going over there just to hang out at night because it’s just so lovely during these crisp fall evenings.
Does that about wrap it up?! I couldn’t be happier to have this part of this house’s renovation off my plate, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes back in the spring! Who else is trying to wrap up exterior work before the winter? I can’t be the only one that always gets a little crazed around this time of year trying to beat the cold!